“Employees want democracy in the workplace”

Werner Nienhüser, an economist at the University of Duisburg-Essen, discusses the results of his study and the big opportunity for “a co-determination offensive”.


The German word “Mitbestimmung” (co-determination) doesn’t have a very sexy ring to it – and it’s a bit of a mouthful. This makes your study’s uniformly positive findings all the more surprising.
Yes, that’s true. 68 percent of the respondents had positive associations and opinions regarding the subject of co-determination. And the proportion of positive responses was even higher for some questions. I was certainly surprised by this finding.

The study’s detractors might claim that the results are hardly surprising, given the fact that the study was commissioned by the Hans Böckler Foundation.
The study is based on a random sample. Its results are therefore completely independent from the organisation it is funded by. The survey was also carried out independently of the people who ran the study, i.e. my colleagues and I. The random sample was put together for us by the renowned polling institute Infratest. The fact that the participants in the survey were selected randomly guarantees that the results are representative.

64 percent of the people in the survey said they wanted employees to have equal influence to management in their company. Are employees today keener to be involved in the running of their companies than they were in the past?
Since this was a one-off survey, we cannot draw any conclusions about how people’s views have changed over time. The results only tell us what the respondents thought at the moment when they gave their answers. Nevertheless, my personal opinion is that the percentage would have been much lower 40 years ago. I was certainly surprised to see such a high figure. However, it would be necessary to ask the respondents more detailed questions in order to establish exactly what they meant by “equal influence”.

There was astonishingly little support in your survey for the credo which states that decision-making power should reside solely with a company’s owners.
Indeed. While the respondents do not deny that there may be disputes with management, they reject the claim that co-determination has a detrimental impact on businesses and, for example, that it is the reason why some companies relocate to other countries. Furthermore, the view that co-determination does not have a negative effect on a company’s business is endorsed by recent research findings.

Can some of the differences between respondents be attributed to their education, profession, income or gender?
There are pronounced differences with regard to their knowledge about co-determination, especially in terms of how highly they rate their own knowledge. Unsurprisingly, the more educated respondents are the ones who are best informed. As far as attitudes are concerned, on the other hand, the differences are very, very minor. It is clear that there is across-the-board support for co-determination. We are still trying to find out why this should be the case.

Which findings surprised you the most?
The fact that there is support for co-determination even among groups that I expected to oppose it. Take senior executives, for example. Or self-employed people and freelancers who employ people themselves. Admittedly, the level of support among these groups is lower than average, but the support is nonetheless there.

Has there been a change in the values or attitudes of these groups?
The positive answers wouldn’t have been so compelling if we had only asked direct questions such as “Do you agree with the statement that co-determination protects employees during times of crisis?”. But we also asked the participants which words they spontaneously associate with terms such as “works council”. They were then asked to classify their associations as positive, neutral or negative. Overall, there were far more positive associations with “works council” than negative ones.

So this two-pronged approach to the survey provides results that are methodologically sounder and more accurate?
Yes, it allows us to have a bit more confidence in the findings. What it doesn’t tell us is whether, when push comes to shove, people’s behaviour matches the attitudes they expressed in the survey. It is only when the chips are down that you find out what a person’s stance on co-determination really is.

How are the current changes in the workplace and people’s personal experience of crisis situations reflected in attitudes towards co-determination?
One thing we can say is that people with a resigned attitude tend to be significantly less positive about co-determination. This would seem to suggest that when first-hand experience of crisis situations makes people feel helpless and powerless, this resignation could conceivably also rub off onto their attitude towards co-determination. I have intentionally couched my answer in hypothetical terms, since our survey only provides a snapshot of a single point in time.

Support for co-determination is relatively high among young people. At the same time, however, you found that the under-30s are very poorly informed about it. How can you square these two findings?
It comes as no surprise to me that young people know less about co-determination. Most of them haven’t yet worked in a company. One phenomenon that we have observed among students is that while it was once common for them to take holiday jobs, fewer and fewer of them are now doing so – and this is especially true of factory jobs involving manual labour. This means that they inevitably have very limited experience of working in a company. In addition, there is very little coverage of co-determination in the media. So how are they supposed to know about it? Nevertheless, there was still a relatively high level of support for co-determination among the young people in our survey, not least because it is often associated with democracy.

Has co-determination come to be seen as a fundamental part of the democratic discourse among young people?
Organisational research describes the process of institutionalisation, whereby some things cease to be questioned. Young people no longer question whether we should have co-determination and the same goes for the self-employed and senior executives. Everyone now agrees that co-determination is a fundamental part of the process.

On the other hand, 42 percent of employees in the survey said they received no information about co-determination at work or didn’t really take advantage of their co-determination rights in the workplace. So perhaps everything isn’t as rosy as it seems?
It certainly isn’t my intention to paint a rosy picture. However, it is abundantly clear that people associate co-determination with democracy. I would also say, albeit a little more tentatively, that there seems to be a willingness to engage with the subject. However, this does not extend to the institutions of co-determination at site or company level. People seem to feel that there is a disconnect between institutionalised co-determination and the shop floor – employees have something of a “them and us” attitude towards works councils. Quite a few people alluded to this in our survey. There is a gulf between the world of the works councils and the everyday experience of the workforce. This is particularly true of the worker representatives on companies’ supervisory boards. We cannot ignore the reality of the situation. Nevertheless, this is a phenomenon that is well known to us from surveys about our representative democracy. While the vast majority of people are in favour of it, they also complain that the people who represent them are out of touch.

The average turnout for last year’s works council elections was more than 80 percent. Politicians can only dream about those sort of numbers.
Indeed. To me, this is a very concrete indication of the fact that employees want democracy in the workplace and are prepared to engage. However, it is important to point out that we are only talking about nine percent of all companies. 91 percent of companies that could have a works council do not have one. Given the positive attitudes towards co-determination and works councils and the high turnout for the works council elections, one might ask why it is that we have so few works councils. Presumably, in many cases it is due to opposition from management. This is also the conclusion suggested by the most recent findings of the Institute of Economic and Social Research (WSI).

What input can the study offer the trade unions in terms of their future strategy?
The time is ripe to campaign publicly on this issue. My recommendation would be to link calls for more co-determination to the principle of democracy. The message we need to get across to employees is this: if they elect a local council because they obviously want to have a say in how their local community is run, then why aren’t they doing the same thing in the workplace? We also need to discuss new approaches that allow us to bridge the gap between works councils and employees. We used to have shop stewards to perform this role. There must be a solution, however hard it may be to find.

Do we also need new forms of communication?
I think it only a slight exaggeration to say that organising meetings with people who all share the same opinion anyway and are in favour of co-determination isn’t going to solve the problem. Moreover, the way to get through to people is by telling them stories rather than simply making appeals to them – we need fewer figures and more examples and we need to ensure that the responsible actors are visible. To be fair, that isn’t so easy in the case of supervisory boards, since their members are bound by confidentiality rules. Unfortunately, we are not allowed to make the content of their meetings public, even though doing so would be a great advert for co-determination.

The interview was conducted by GUNTRAM DOELFS and MARGARETE HASEL

Translated from magazine Mitbestimmung 3/2015 by Hugh Keith.



WERNER NIENHÜSER, 61, is a business administration expert and Professor of Work, Human Resource Management and Organisation at the University of Duisburg-Essen. Together with a team of fellow researchers, he carried out a study on “Attitudes to Worker Co-Determination” for the Hans Böckler Foundation. The study was based on a large, representative survey. He presented its initial findings at the 2015 Böckler Conference for Supervisory Boards which was held in Berlin at the beginning of February.

Workers want to have a say

A “co-determination offensive” in the workplace needs to be underpinned by hard facts. What do the workers in German companies actually know about co-determination? What are their attitudes and opinions on this issue and how can any differences in their views be explained? A group of researchers (Heiko Hoßfeld, Esther Glück, Lukas Göddel) led by Werner Nienhüser of the Faculty of Economics and Business Administration at the University of Duisburg-Essen attempted to find answers to these questions. The detailed results of their study on “Attitudes to Worker Co-Determination”, which was funded by the Hans Böckler Foundation, revealed some surprising findings.

The researchers analysed the responses of a random sample of 3,203 people in a survey carried out by Infratest Dimap at the end of 2013. In addition, 38 interviews were conducted with young people. The answers that people give to questions about their attitudes tend to be influenced by what they perceive as the socially expected response. In order to paint a reliable picture of the respondents’ true opinions, the research team therefore supplemented direct questions with indirect, associative ones.

The researchers found there to be considerable room for improvement in terms of people’s knowledge about co-determination. More than two thirds of those questioned said that they get their information from the media. 42 percent reported that they rarely receive any information at work with regard to either co-determination or the works council. The under-30s are also poorly informed. Notwithstanding this, attitudes towards co-determination are predominantly positive. More than two thirds of the respondents (68 percent) had positive associations with co-determination. Interestingly, even freelancers, self-employed people and senior executives have a fundamentally positive attitude towards co-determination, although the scores are somewhat lower among these groups. The participants in the survey expressed a very clear stance regarding the extent to which employees should influence the running of their company – 64 percent said they wanted employees to have equal influence to management.

The study “WHAT PEOPLE THINK ABOUT WORKER CO-DETERMINATION” will be published at the end of 2015.


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