I have struggled for weeks trying to write this December Food For Thought article. My intention is to write about my experience as an employee-board member, as well as to explain why I am choosing not to run for a full term.
In November 2017 Dan Seals, the elected employee director, stepped down from his position, and I was appointed by the board to finish Dan’s term, which ended in November 2018. Though I have only been a board member for one year, I was introduced to the board when I volunteered as the Shareholder Forum-Board liaison back in 2014 or 2015. Through that position, I learned how dedicated board members are. It was immediately apparent the amount of time and work they donate to our BFC community. It’s a rather thankless position, and yet all the board members I have been fortunate to know are truly remarkable people. I am in awe at their willingness to take on the responsibility of the Co-op. The meetings adhere to a full agenda, and yet there is poetry, laughter, lively discourse, and always an atmosphere of respect. That’s my experience—and I will always be grateful that I started attending via the Shareholder Forum and grateful too that I was asked to step in and finish Dan’s term. By attending the meetings as a liaison and as an employee-director, I witnessed the incredible amount of work the GM does, as well as the Board. Truly it was an honor for me.
So all this praise, and yet I am not running to be elected as an employee-director for a three-year term. Though I learned a great deal and enjoyed the camaraderie of the board meetings, I struggled, never silently though, to navigate between being a staff member under the direction of the GM and then sitting on the board as an employee-director, monitoring the GM. I personally didn’t flow easily between the two roles. Other employees have managed wearing the two hats more easily, but for me, I find the status of employee-director difficult.
To clarify a common misconception, employee-directors do not act as liaisons between the employees and the board. The BFC Board does not micromanage or interfere in the relationship between management and staff. Since the BFC employees voted to unionize, we have recourse, when needed, to representation by employee-union stewards.
Our Board can have up to two elected employee-directors. In this role, the employee-director has a few stipulations that separate them from shareholder-directors. For one, because of the conflict of interest as employees, we cannot attend Executive Sessions regarding the GM’s compensation package. The board also reserves the authority that if a topic comes up that the board feels having the employees present would pose a conflict, the board can vote to have the employees excluded from those Executive Sessions. I have never experienced that, but did step out when the GM’s compensation was being discussed. The other restriction for employee-directors is that we cannot hold the service position of President, Vice-President or Treasurer. As was explained to me, the person in these roles works closely with the GM, which for an employee, has the potential to be a conflict. I understand these restrictions but also struggle with and against them. My feeling is that every seat at the board table ought to be filled with people able to carry a full workload and be engaged in all discussions without restriction.
As an employee at a unionized cooperative, I have hope and expectations of a particular workplace culture, one that does not practice the differentiation of management and staff. This leads to my struggle with our 3rd Ends Policy, “A workplace community where cooperative values are modeled.” When the board monitors the 3rd End, it does not monitor the morale of the staff as an aspect of the workplace community. For this Ends to be monitored effectively, I feel employees need to be at the table with a limited report as well.
I’ve really struggled writing my experience and opinions in this Food For Thought article. No matter how I write it, I fear that I will be viewed as slamming the GM and management. That is definitely not my intention, but rather, to point out that the system we have contradicts our cooperative ideals and values.
I find it difficult to be fully present and engaged at Board meetings as an employee because it feels like a very narrow margin to question the GM from an employee-director’s perspective. As an employee, we have knowledge that shareholder-directors just do not. It’s not that I can’t speak up, and I believe my input is welcomed, but my questions or input might be contrary to what the GM or the Board discusses, and as only one of two employees, I often feel as a lone wolf and certainly in the minority, if what I am sharing is disagreeable to others. It’s a very difficult place for me. After my experience as a board member, I feel there are ways to create a solution. I think limiting the number of board seats to just two employees creates an imbalance on the board. Having two employees is an opening to an inclusive board, but it is limiting as we are restricted by some policies and also by the nature of our roles. It would be a safer environment and perhaps more conducive if the BFC Board had half the board seats for employees. This would foster an atmosphere of balance and support of each other and the Co-op as a whole. If this is too radical of an idea, another idea is that we ought not have employees on the board at all. Two employee-directors is enough to look good, but it isn’t enough to balance the scales, in my opinion. The third option could be a board committee including a union steward, board member(s) and staff members. This committee could provide a more comprehensive review of how well the 3rd End is being met.
At the very least, if we stay with the system as is, with two staff-directors, then I feel we need to have the responsibility to be liaisons and provide a limited report on the BFC employees. The ‘Employee Report’, limited in scope, confidential in nature, and without the expectation of the Board getting involved in any employee resolutions or taking sides. It would provide the Board with a full picture of the Co-op, that they are tasked with overseeing. Between the GM report as well as an Employee Report, Ends Policy #3 can be monitored. With the current system and policies, the 3rd Ends Policy cannot be monitored.
My opinions are not among most people I’ve spoken with—whether on the Board, co-worker or shareholder, but still, I persist. We have a very unique community hub in our BFC Cooperative. I want the success of our Co-op to continue, and I will continue to be part of it, not just as an employee. It is not a clock-in and clock-out job.
Despite my contrary opinions and after all this is written, I remain grateful for my experience as a Board member. We have a tremendous group of people on our Board—dedicated and devoted people, volunteering a lot of their energy and time. Regardless of my contrary opinions here, I am grateful to all of you.
By Kathy Carr