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Governance — When internal communications mean a redistribution of power

Corporate governance is in the process of becoming an absolutely central topic. Major failures of management are often seen to bring it to the foreground. The term “Ghosnisation” has already come into use to describe the hubris of a big boss who neglects the powers that limit him.

The question of the balance of powers and safeguards seems to us to be more acute than ever. But what powers are we talking about? For the specialists, there are three: sovereign power (shareholders), executive power (chairman and chief executive) and supervisory power (board of directors or supervisory board), each playing the role of a counter-power for the others.

What role do employees play in corporate governance?

The topic that interests us most here is that of the role of employees as part of these powers. This debate has been going on for some time, and has taken different forms through to the general acceptance of the idea that they constitute a special stakeholder, essential to the success of any productive project. We have frequently heard employee first, in recent years, challenging the traditional “customers first”, an illustration of the desire to give employees more power..

More modestly, The Notat-Senard report defines them as one of the company’s two “constitutive” stakeholders, along with shareholders.

The subject appears all the more sensitive as, since the financial crisis of 2008, the critics of financialisation see in the rise of “employee power” a necessary attenuation of the alignment of managers with the interests of investors and “false” shareholders (in the sense that the continuity of the company is not their concern)1

So employees should have more power… but in what form?

Sovereign power?

Employees can already participate by becoming shareholders (Airbus, Arkema and Essilor are often cited by France’s President Macron as setting a good example in this regard).

Supervisory power?

More favourable legislation defines them as representatives of both employee-shareholders and of the personnel in general on boards.

Executive power?

This is where their involvement is most uncertain, mainly because their “ participation” in this particular power is delegated to representing the personnel, which suffer from the double handicap of being restricted to giving their opinion and being imbued with the anti-establishment culture of French trade unions.

Nonetheless, many companies – EDF, Veolia and Danone among them – seem determined to co-develop their strategy directly with employees, with no form of mediation.

As part of Danone’s strategic framework, for instance, it states it wants to “entrust [its] people to create new futures,” enabling “each of [its] employees to co-own [its] agenda and [its] goals, both at global and local level.”

Through these participatory mechanisms, there is a growing executive role for employees. They are not given power as such, but something just as important: they can designate and prioritise the problems that have to be addressed as well as their resolutions, and sometimes even question the organisation of the power of implementation.

Three roles for internal communications in governance

In this perspective, internal communications has a triple role to play.

1. Acclimatising future contributors to societal, economic and environmental challenges.

This is a necessity so that they can play the role of strategic input that we want them to play.

This is an exciting and complex challenge, given the breadth and heterogeneity of the audiences and their natural mistrust (free will necessarily makes you defiant, which is no bad thing – trust has to be earned!).

This need for acclimatisation entails the invention of new protocols: learning expeditions, micro-learning, interactions with stakeholders (for it is essential to show the environment such as it is but also as it is perceived), practice of co-design, etc.

2. Organising involvement.

This is contributing to the creation, regulation and promotion of specific interfaces that will enable employees to express themselves and give their opinions. And ensuring that the process is not a one-off, but a form of constant energy.

3. Motivating on the basis of the purpose.

Organising support for the company’s purpose, values and operational project that is sincere and consensual, since it has been co-constructed. Keeping in mind the fact that this support does not necessarily go hand-in-hand with engagement (“I’m prepared to help you”) but will sometimes take the form of a well-meaning silence, a cautious desire for dialogue or an expression of agreement that will not necessarily lead to action.

By embracing the topic of governance, and thus accepting to be the instrument of its “democratisation”, internal communications will become an indispensable asset in the eyes of the company’s management. Who are also the people who pay…