WORKER or employee directors are common and well known of in many parts of mainland Europe, especially in Austria, Germany and the Netherlands. Nineteen countries on the continent have legal provisions for creating them. Alas, worker or employee directors are very few and far between in Scotland or Britain – and this is nothing to do with Brexit.

Bodies such as the High Pay Centre and Trades Union Congress (TUC) regularly extol the virtues of such roles for improving corporate governance, worker representation, and wider economic and social justice.

Scotland has a particular role to play in promoting the case for worker or employee directors in Britain.

Bus and train conglomerate, FirstGroup, began life in Aberdeen in 1989 when the municipal bus company Grampian Regional Transport was bought over by employees and managers.

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From that moment onwards, and as the company expanded, there was a worker director in each subsidiary and on the main board of the overall company. The subsidiary-level worker directors are elected by employees and these worker directors elect the main board worker director.

Then, in 1999, and well before the introduction of the Scottish Government’s fair work, policy in 2016, a partnership agreement in the NHS in Scotland was signed between the employers and health service unions.

This led to the creation of employee directors in 2001 for each of the 14 regional NHS Scotland health boards and some specialist cross-health board sections within NHS Scotland as a whole, such as Public Health Scotland and Healthcare Improvement Scotland. Employee directors do not exist in NHS England or NHS Wales.

To reinforce partnership working and the role of partnership forums in the decision-making process, the staff side chair of each NHS board partnership forum is invited to sit on the board as an employee director.

In particular, the employee directors are charged with providing a staff perspective on strategy development and service delivery issues as well as explaining the work of the board to staff.

The National: A FirstGroup bus in Ipswich.

Until reforms to corporate governance in 2018, FirstGroup was the only private-sector employer to have worker directors. Only three more British companies – Wetherspoons, Frasers and Capita – have introduced them since and, unlike FirstGroup, none allows its workers to elect their worker director.

Instead, they are appointed by senior management.

Indeed, the only two other companies in Britain with worker directors have Austrian and German ownership – the RHI Magnesita chemical company and the TUI travel group.

What does the earlier and greater experience of worker directors in Scotland tells us about ensuring productive industrial relations?

Speaking to Mick Barker, an Aslef train drivers’ union member who was both a worker director at the subsidiary and group level for 10 years at FirstGroup, gives an insight into his experience of holding the position.

Barker saw the major part of his role to act as “a bridge from the front line to the board room” in order to “promote honesty, compassion and transparency” to senior management and shareholders by being the workers’ voice at that level.

However, Barker never saw his role as supplanting the function of his union and its sister unions in collective bargaining at FirstGroup. This was because, on his own as a sole worker director, he believed he had “no power whatsoever”.

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Instead, any influence he had, he believed, was derived from the being an authentic voice of those he represented – and this authenticity was gained by speaking to as many FirstGroup employees as possible and then communicating their views to the company’s directors.

In doing so, he formulated an employee perspective to put to the directors because he knew “the arguments and information”. In the process, Baker says he established “credibility” for the employee perspective as well as some “mutual trust” with his fellow directors.

Research conducted by academics, Nick Bacon and Peter Samuel, between 2005 and 2013 provided overwhelmingly positive assessments of the system of employee directors in NHS Scotland.

This was especially with regard to joint problem-solving and a search for optimal solutions to issues.

Bacon and Samuel noted that “a positive climate [was created]” in partnership meetings where all sides listen to each other’s concerns and work together to develop the detailed policies required to improve services.

Despite pressures on financial and staffing resources in recent years, the role of employee directors in the NHS in Scotland is still valued by the health service unions.

Although there are few other existing examples of worker or employee directors, the benefits are apparent.

Views can be presented directly to senior executives that cannot be presented through negotiations where human resource officers are the management’s representatives on the other side of the bargaining table.

Unions can gain information at boardroom level which is not easily available elsewhere.

The major downside of being a worker or employee director is that being in a minority of one can be frustrating where consensus gives way to conflict.

That is why worker or employee directors work best where they are a complement – not alternative – to strong, independent unions whose primary purpose is to defend and advance their members’ interests through collective bargaining.

Gregor Gall is visiting professor of industrial relations at the University of Leeds