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  1. Workplace Democracy Catches On
  2. Companies let employees vote on hiring, holiday parties and other issues
  3. Workplace Democracy Catches On  
  4. ILLUSTRATION: OTTO STEININGER
  5. By Rachel Emma Silverman
  6. March 27, 2016 6:31 p.m. ET
  7. 0 COMMENTS
  8. As voters head to the polls to pick their party’s presidential nominee, employees at InContext Solutions will vote in a contest with far lower stakes: whether to play music in the office common areas.
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  10. At a time when voting is on Americans’ minds, ballot contests are coming to the office, too. Workplace democracy has caught on at many companies, including InContext, grocer Whole Foods Market Inc. and marketing technology company MediaMath Inc., where workers cast votes on issues large and small.
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  12. While firms like McKinsey & Co. have long had partners elect leaders—and unions give employees a say on pay and work arrangements—digital survey tools like TinyPulse and Know Your Company enable more companies to give their staff a voice in running the workplace. Taking ballots on issues from hiring to holiday parties helps spark loyalty to the company, managers say—though promotions and salaries are mostly decided behind closed doors.
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  14. “People feel like they have a real voice,” says Mackenzie Siren, a product manager at InContext, which makes software for retailers and manufacturers. Its 95 workers have voted on standing desks, whether to have cubicles or open tables in its Chicago office, and which brews to keep in the company keg.
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  16. Voter fatigue can set in. “It can get a bit cumbersome,” says Ms. Siren. A vote last summer to name InContext’s conference rooms after notable scientists asked employees to rank their favorites from a slate of options. Rather than voting, workers took to a companywide email thread, bickering over which scientists were included on the list. Ms. Siren’s favorite, Ada Lovelace, made the cut, but the exercise was trying.
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  18. “Sometimes you just want to get your job done,” she says.
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  20. Marketing-technology firm MediaMath let employees pick its new headquarters, choosing from one of two locations in Manhattan. About 175 employees toured both sites and voted online, choosing a location in the World Trade Center complex.
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  22. Pete Gosling, a senior creative director, liked being able to weigh in—though his choice was the loser—but he recognized that it was a lot of work for the company’s facilities staff. “It would have been much easier to just have made a decision,” he says.
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  24. The board of directors of W.L. Gore & Associates, the maker of Gore-Tex, asked for feedback from workers in 2005 to help choose Terri Kelly as the company’s next chief executive, according to a company spokeswoman.
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  26. Stephen Courtright, assistant professor of management at Texas A&M University who studies nonhierarchical organizations, says bosses in democratic companies need to be comfortable ceding executive decision power. Just how much power they lose depends on the weight of the decisions: Allowing staff to pick a CEO differs from letting them decide which snacks to serve. The leader’s role must change from a decision maker to someone who “provides the information and resources for the team to make a decision,” he says.
  27.  
  28. At Whole Foods, new store employees must win approval from two-thirds of their departmental colleagues to stay on past a trial period of up to 90 days. General managers at restaurant chain Pret a Manger Ltd. ask store employees for their opinions of job applicants. While it isn’t a formal vote, the feedback figures heavily in the general manager’s decision, a spokeswoman says.
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  30. Software company Menlo Innovations LLC’s employees participate in the hiring process by observing how candidates work during a trial period and vote yes or no on potential candidates, says Rich Sheridan, Menlo’s CEO and co-founder. (The votes aren’t anonymous and are conducted in a group.)
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  32. Mr. Sheridan overruled some staff choices in the past, which made employees feel less invested in their decisions. Now, he sticks with the vote. “Because the team picked you, they are not going to let you fail,” he says.
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  34. Other firms open the ballot box for benefits. Several years ago, employees of online discount site 1Sale.com voted on whether the company should continue serving free lunch or apply that money to lowering health-insurance premiums for workers. More than 90% picked the lower premiums, says Eli Federman, a co-founder.
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  36. “They asked us, do you prefer to have your belly full or your wallet full?” recalls marketing manager Shmuli Bortunk. “Without just deciding behind closed doors, they gave us the option to decide collectively what we want.”
  37.  
  38. 1Sale teams also vote on whether a candidate is a “hire” or a “no hire,” but hiring managers make the final call. Mr. Bortunk sometimes voted on people “a level or two above me on the corporate map,” he says. “This in itself was a very empowering task. It felt like we all had a voice in who joins.”
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  40. Staff at Social Tables Inc., a maker of event-planning software, have voted on the company’s core values, its conference-room themes (“50 Shades of Pink” and “Grandma’s Living Room” were both winners) and even a company theme song (“Jubel” by Klingande), played at corporate events, says Sarah Shepherd, who works in human resources for the Washington, D.C.,-based firm.
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  42. It is a lot of polling, says DJ Bruggemann, Social Tables’ director of business development, but he always participates. “As soon as you stop voicing your opinion, you lose your right to complain.”
  43.  
  44. Write to Rachel Emma Silverman at rachel.silverman@wsj.com
  45.  
  46. Appeared in the March 28, 2016, print edition as 'Workplace Democracy Catches On.'
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