This week we celebrate both American Independence Day and Canada Day.  These holidays draw attention the importance of a democratic form of government based on the idea that every citizen should be able to be actively involved in major decisions.  In the early days of our shop we attended a talk by a University of Wisconsin Extension professor about using participative democracy as a form of business management.  We were inspired to adapt the idea as one of our core tenets.   Over forty years later, I feel this  simple but effective concept is one of the reasons for our store’s long term success — and it’s the idea that I’ve been most proud to share in all four editions of Specialty Shop Retailing: How You Can Succeed in Today’s Market.  (I must admit, however,  that  I’ve often wondered what readers of the Russian translation made of it.)

The basic principle behind participative democracy, or management by participation, is that employees are given a voice in all aspects of running the business. At Orange Tree Imports this translates into our staff members being in charge of one or more departments of merchandise. They are also privy to our financial data and give their thoughts/input on major decisions, from hiring to visual merchandising and remodeling. The final decisions still rest with us, but in order to make this technique effective, we realize we must share some real power with our employees.

Probably the most important use of this approach is in our staff interviews.   Candidates are prescreened for experience and availability, and then are invited to meet a volunteer committee of employees for an interview.  These short interviews take place before the store opens, and each applicant is allotted about 15 minutes.  Our staff is counseled in advance to avoid questions that are illegal, such as those relating to age, race, disability or marital status.

After the last candidate has left, we vote on who to hire — and the majority rules. Almost every member of our staff has been hired this way, including out personnel manager.  Experience has confirmed the validity of our belief that the staff has a vested interest in the success of a new employee they help select.

Delegation can be hard, but the challenge is outweighed by the advantages of having employees who feel very involved in the success of the store.  It has definitely contributed to our ability to retain staff members, some of whom have been with us over 30 years.  And although consensus can slow down decision-making, we know that employees are more enthused about policies they help design.  Having a say in how your business is run will increase your employee’s day-to-day morale and creativity.  And having full access to the combined talents and input of everyone who works for you significantly enhances your ability to create a truly amazing store.

Happy Retailing,

Carol “Orange” Schroeder