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Creation of the Employee Council and a Diversity Update

Members pave the way for employee participation in management

I’m going to be honest with you: reading through a line-by-line item comparison of two sets of by-laws just isn’t my idea of a good time. But for those of you who read through the proposed changes to the Co-op bylaws in March, and especially the 304 of you who took the time to vote on them, the staff of the Co-op thank you for engaging in that sometimes tedious work. With that vote, which included changing the definition of participatory management, you allowed for a new paradigm of staff participation, one that takes into account our current and future growth, and truly puts staff in the driver’s seat when it comes to issues that affect them.

Two years, two paragraphs, two sentences

Over the last two years, various subcommittees were able to change two paragraphs worth of information on worker organization into two (albeit long!) sentences under Participatory Management. However, in those two sentences, I think I can safely say every word was carefully and thoroughly scrutinized by any staff member who cared to debate the etymology and precise definition of “involve” vs. “engage.” We can truly say that we espoused the virtues of the participation we were trying to define, even in our process of defining it.

What we ended up with was a strong statement to support staff and their ability to have input in the management of their workplace. Unlike the old version of this statement, which was explicit and ultimately restrictive, the current version allows for employees of the Co-op to define as they see fit how their vehicle for representation, the Employee Council, operates within the Co-op:

“7.1: The Co-op supports participatory management. To that end, management of the Co-op shall be conducted in a manner that enables employees to be involved in the decision-making process via direct input or representation by the Employee Council, which shall adhere to the Co-op purpose (statement) and make decisions on personnel issues that affect all employees.”

Putting it in practice

Defining the bylaw wasn’t even half of the battle. Over the course of the last year, a small committee representing staff and management from the retail location and our Production Kitchen worked to define how exactly participatory management could be better enacted. In addition, this committee had to consider how to ensure participation by all staff in the definition of this new entity, and a transition plan from the old Personnel Committee. This committee hosted two All-worker meetings to inform and gather feedback from staff, and updated department staff at their team meetings. The result of this work was a set of bylaws specific to the newly proposed Employee Council (EC), including a clause that the bylaws of the EC could be changed at any time with a majority vote of the staff.

The Employee Council

The new Employee Council is markedly different from the Personnel Committee of old. Instead of three representatives (who could be management or staff) for all employees at both our kitchen and retail, we now have one staff representative for each department. Anyone may submit a proposal for a new idea to this group at any time, and any changes to policies or procedures that affect all staff must be submitted to this council for ratification. Proposals are structured such that they cannot merely point out a problem, but also offer what the employee would suggest as a solution. These proposals are then discussed at the EC meetings, then remanded to subcommittees for further work and clarification if needed, before coming back to the committee for a vote.

Though we have only met once

so far, the EC has already discussed and made determinations on matters from ongoing employee education, to project management standards and changes to the EC bylaws. Next month’s agenda is already filling up with more employee suggestions for change, including a breastfeeding policy and changes to the eligibility criteria for participation on the EC. We hope that as staff become more familiar with how the process works and see that their suggestions for change are seriously considered by a committee of their peers, we will continue to grow the number of improvements to the way the co-op is managed, for the betterment of all members.

Humble beginnings

The Co-op has always been committed to equal opportunity in employment, and employing a diverse workforce. One thing we were lacking was hard data to back up our intentions. So in 2005, the Board of Directors asked for a report on the status of our staff diversity in relation to the community the Co-op serves.

At that point in time, we were armed with only the2000 Madison census data for the 17 census tracts where the bulk of our members lived, and a survey filled out by about 50% of the current staff on a whole host of data points—not only those reported to the federal EEOC, but also those as defined by the State of WI (many of which are also not in the Madison census). In 2005 and 2006 we tracked self-reported employee data and compared them against the census benchmarks, to track movement across years.

Increasing the data

Once we had data to analyze, the management team met to brainstorm some reasons for any discrepancies between the census data and our then current staffing. Increased diversity sensitivity training was enacted, and the Co-op began to use another metric to measure diversity, which was a confidential survey of our applicants. In addition, the Co-op made a renewed effort to have all staff self-report the EEOC race data, as well as to get that information from new hires, rather than having to rely on an annual survey and the attendant response rate. We are now at a point where we have even more meaningful data about our efforts to increase our diversity.

Where we stand

I am happy to report that any discrepancies between the diversity of our staff (in terms of race, sex and age) and applicants as well as our core membership census data has decreased to be within a margin of 5%, and in many categories we have less than a 3% difference. In some categories, our staff is actually more diverse than our applicants or the last Madison census would suggest.

Continued outreach for a diverse staff

Despite our good work to employ a staff that is roughly representative of our applicant pool and shopper demographics, we are always striving to remove roadblocks for diverse applicants to find their way to our store. At the time of the diversity training in 2006, the Co-op instituted some targeted employment ads aimed towards increasing our diversity. In addition, we have formed a partnership with Commonwealth Development and their youth mentoring program, and worked with hiring managers and HR staff to uncover hidden biases (for example, subtle and unrecognized preference for certain groups of people).

Though we have been seeing positive movement in many areas, ideally we’d like to see a zero percent discrepancy in any category that we track. For example, even though our average age has increased over the last year to 31 years old, our targeted census areas show an average age of 33. Older workers will continue to be a focus for increased recruitment. The HR department has been reviewing data from AARP on what older workers value in the workplace, and are brainstorming outreach techniques that emphasize these benefits, such as flexible scheduling, access to quality and affordable healthcare, and a sense of community.

Give the Co-op a try!

Summer tends to be a time of turnover in this college town, so if you are or know someone who might be looking for a way to gradually move into retirement, or just have a way to contribute to an organization they feel good about and connecting with others who feel the same way, don’t hesitate to make sure to get an application in! You can download our application from, or pick one up at our customer service counter—tell ‘em Sarah sent you.