Wednesday, July 19, 2017

What Happens at Work Doesn’t Stay There: (Poor) Workplace Democracy Promotes (Poor) Political Democracy

The workplace is not like Las Vegas—what happens at work, often doesn’t stay at work. Nearly 250 years ago, the father of modern economics, Adam Smith, worried that mind-numbing jobs would cause workers to lose the ability and motivation to be thoughtful, engaged citizen-people outside of the workplace (The Wealth of Nations, Book V, Chapter I, Part III, Article II). This is perhaps one of the few areas where Karl Marx would have agreed with Smith, and Marx’s rejection of capitalism is deeply rooted in his concerns with the far-reaching, negative effects of work. The detrimental effects on someone’s personal life and on their community might be fairly obvious for workplace injuries, and there is increasing recognition of the mental health risks of lousy work. But does the nature of the workplace affect other aspects of society, like political participation?

Some argue that the workplace can be a breeding ground for pro-democratic attitudes and political behaviors. That is, the use of deliberative and other participatory skills in one’s work can give someone the confidence and the skills to want to participate in the political arena. And hearkening back to Smith and Marx, the absence or repression of autonomous decision-making in the workplace can undercut attitudes and skills that promote political participation, thus weakening political engagement. But does this actually happen in practice, at least to a magnitude we can observe across many workers?

To investigate this, my co-authors and I analyze European Social Survey data on over 14,000 workers across 27 European countries. These workers reported their level of political participation in nine activities (such as voting, contacting a politician, wearing a campaign badge, and belonging to a political party) and also their interest level in politics. Moreover, they also answered several questions on the extent to which they have autonomy and participate in decision-making in their jobs. We combined these several questions into an index of individual voice or workplace democracy.

We then undertake a number of multivariate analyses and find that that employees with greater levels of individual voice at work are indeed significantly more likely to engage in a broad array of pro-democratic behaviors, and we find strong results even when controlling for a wide-range of employee and job characteristics. Or to put this in a negative frame reminiscent of Smith and Marx, dictatorial and authoritarian workplace practices are likely to be related to reduced political participation in the democratic arena.

This relationship appears just as strong as the commonly-accepted relationship between labor unions and political participation. We further show that the results do not appear to be driven by a small number of specific countries; rather, the relationship between workplace democracy and political democracy is one that is apparent across diverse countries, and hence across diverse institutional environments.

These results imply that the importance of organizational practices extends beyond the workplace, and public policy interventions might be warranted to prevent dictatorial work regimes that dampen political engagement. And while we use accepted econometric techniques to account for the possibility that the causal arrows runs from the workplace to the political arena, our findings are still important if causality actually runs from the political arena to the workplace. In such a case, then a participatory workplace should be seen as an important outlet for individuals valuing political involvement. In particular, workplace participation can prevent individuals from getting frustrated or losing their deliberative skills, thus reducing the likelihood that they withdraw from the political arena. So regardless of which way the causal arrow points, the workplace-political engagement nexus is an important one that deserves greater attention.

What happens at work, doesn’t stay at work. Rather, work is an inseparable part of our lives and our communities. As such, it deserves continued scrutiny by all of us. 

Source:  John W. Budd, J. Ryan Lamare, and Andrew R. Timming (2018) "Learning about Democracy at Work: Cross-National Evidence on Individual Employee Voice Influencing Political Participation in Civil Society,"  ILR Review (
Click here to read the full paper.

1 comment:

  1. This is a beautifully true in my estimation.
    I cannot tell you how much happier I've been since going into a profession where I have significant autonomy. I am a Realtor and set my own hours and choose my clientele.

    Adam Smith and Karl Marx, both of whom understood the idea that the organization of work affects fundamental changes in “people’s minds," hit the nail on the head. Sales associates at my firm are told "the only limits are the ones that exist in our minds." I leave market activity reports with my business card on the front door steps of homes across suburban Minneapolis, a somewhat unorthodox marketing activity, and am supported by management at Edina Realty, Incorporated. This would never happen at a place like US Bank.

    When I worked in corporate human resources at US Bank in Minneapolis, I spent most of my day thinking about what I should be doing to keep employees engaged and my employer happy with the results of my work; sometimes I never knew. As a real estate salesperson I spend most of my day practicing the six fiduciary duties I owe my clients:

    (1) Loyalty - broker/salesperson will act only in client(s)' best interest.
    I do not try to sell properties I know my clients cannot afford.
    (2) Obedience - broker/salesperson will carry out all client(s)' lawful instructions.
    I will show properties until 10:00 on a Saturday evening, because I work around client schedules.
    (3) Disclosure - broker/salesperson will disclose to client(s) all material facts of which broker/salesperson has knowledge which might reasonably affect the client(s)' use and enjoyment of the property.
    I generally print the Seller’s Disclosure Statement and present it to the client at each property on a tour. I talk about what’s wrong with the house and how we can fix it.
    (4) Confidentiality - broker/salesperson will keep client(s)' confidences unless required by law to disclose specific information (such as disclosure of material facts to Buyers).
    As a buyer’s agent I do not reveal my client’s price, terms, or motivation to the listing broker. The good Realtors adhere to the Code of Ethics as promulgated by the National Association of Realtors. The bad ones get fined by the Minnesota Department of Commerce and sometimes lose their license.
    (5) Reasonable Care – broker/salesperson will use reasonable care in performing duties as an agent.
    We work some crazy hours and can go months without a paycheck. Mindfulness is key.
    (6) Accounting – broker/salesperson will account to client(s) for all client(s)’ money and property received as agent.
    I am still learning exactly how this happens internally at the firm, and I trust Edina Realty Title enough to know they do this well. I’ve seen it happen five times in the past year.

    What does this mean for my participation in the political arena?

    It means that I care a little bit more about how my actions affect people, because my work does not end at five o’clock. I understand that my professional activities have the potential to inspire others to make this world a better place to live and work. I am Mark Schroepfer, and I am proud to be a real estate salesperson in the State of Minnesota.