Defining “Employee-Owned”: How We Set Our Certification Standards

Thomas Dudley



Worker runs diagnostic on engine

At Certified Employee-Owned, our mission is to accelerate the creation of an employee-owned economy by building support for employee ownership. Inspired by Fair Trade and Great Place to Work, Kramer Sharp and I started Certified EO in 2016 because we thought certification would coordinate and amplify the voice of the employee ownership movement. 

As we have grown to over 500 Members, we have seen how employee ownership is an idea that takes many different forms at different companies. Given all the nuance, it’s important to articulate what it means to certify a company as “employee-owned” and how we set this standard. This article walks through our journey to create a specific and clear definition of employee-owned and details what we learned along the way:

  • Why it’s important to define “employee-owned”
  • Themes from over 250 community conversations
  • Wealth building unites our community
  • Setting a standard that people know and trust

Why it’s Important to Define “Employee-Owned”

The idea for Certified EO grew out of my work as a PhD student at Stanford Business School. I joined the Organizational Behavior department in 2013 with an interest in understanding alternative business structures. In my first year, my advisor pointed me in the direction of the academic work on employee-owned companies. I was excited to learn about the model and thrilled that research demonstrated the potential for increased firm performance and better outcomes for employees. 

While absorbing this work, I had frequent conversations about what I was learning with a long-time friend, Kramer Sharp. The more we talked about employee ownership the more interested we became in this unique business model. We were delighted to find that many companies we knew and loved were employee-owned. We were also inspired by the passionate service providers powering this transformative model. But we kept coming back to the same question: Why had we never heard of this before?

Reflecting on our experience, it became clear that a major obstacle for the employee ownership community was lack of visibility. Finding employee-owned companies was a challenge. Some employee-owned companies were talking about it, but many were not. Worse, some companies were saying they were employee-owned when clearly they were not. There was no official list and the closest thing we could find required digging through government fillings. But even that list was incomplete. There simply was no easy way to find employee-owned companies.

Kramer and I began thinking about ways to create a bridge between employee-owned companies and the general public. Looking at Fair Trade and Great Place to Work, we realized that certification is a proven model for coordinating and amplifying the voice of a movement. Combining the reach of employee-owned companies would make them the employer of choice for millions of job seekers and make being employee-owned a major differentiator with clients and consumers. But creating a certification program means creating a standard that people know and trust. So before we could start building towards our vision we had to define “employee-owned.”

Themes From Over 250 Community Conversations

At this time, the ESOP model was already over 40 years old. Kramer and I knew that we had to ground the definition of “employee-owned” in the practices and views of the community. We started by connecting with the major trade associations including the National Center for Employee Ownership, The ESOP Association, Employee-Owned S-Corporations of America, and the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives. We attended conferences to speak with service providers including lawyers, accountants, bankers, and consultants who create and administer employee ownership plans. And of course we contacted as many employee-owned companies as possible. Over the course of 2016 we had over 250 conversations about what it means to be employee-owned. 

It’s no surprise that we heard a variety of perspectives. For some companies employee ownership is about giving everyone a financial stake in the success of the business. WinCo Foods, for example, has had broad-based employee ownership for over 30 years and in the process has created millionaire grocery clerks. Other companies see employee ownership as encompassing both share ownership and employee involvement in operational decision making, for example open-book management. A few companies even see employee ownership as including a say in important governance issues. For example, Worker Cooperatives give their worker-owners equal votes in electing the board of directors. These three aspects of ownership - money, operational decision making and governance - were the common threads running through our conversations with companies and advocates. 

Wealth Building Unites Our Community

It took about five conversations for us to see that it would be impossible to come up with a single definition that would include everything that everyone saw as important. While money, operational decision making, and governance were the common threads, everyone had a different opinion on their relative importance. So we started looking for a baseline. What were the aspects of employee ownership that would be broadly seen as essential? If a company did everything BUT one particular practice, would they still be viewed as employee-owned? With this shift in perspective, one element stood out: wealth building for working people

Everyone we spoke to mentioned wealth building as a critical aspect of employee ownership. We heard many stories of long-time employee-owners in front-line roles building substantial wealth. Companies with diverse employee ownership structures including Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs), Worker Cooperatives, Employee Ownership Trusts (EOTs), and the various Direct Share Ownership Models all include some combination of profit sharing and capital accounts that help employees build wealth. Others pointed out how broad-based wealth building aligns with the fundamental promise of America as a land of opportunity. While operational decision making and employee involvement in governance can be positive, the wealth building for working people stands apart in importance for individuals as well as our country. 

Setting a Standard That People Know and Trust

With our direction focused on wealth building, we arrived at a set of standards that captured the common practices and was aligned with historical legislation:

  • Ownership: at least 30% of the company must be owned by employees. Shares held by company founders do not count towards this threshold.
  • Access: reasonable access to ownership must be open to every employee.
  • Concentration: the ownership held in line with #1 and #2 must not be over-concentrated. This is controlled either through a cap on the maximum distribution or a maximum ratio between maximum and median distribution.

It’s important to acknowledge that some things get lost when you simplify a complicated concept like employee ownership down to a binary of certified or not. For example, we’ve spoken with a company where employees hold a 10% stake that meets the access and concentration components of our standards. They were quick to point out that it might be much better to own 10% of a successful company than 100% of a failing business. There is merit to that point, but at the same time, 10% is not enough to call a company “employee-owned.” 

Others have told us that they felt our standards were too low. Why not set the bar at a majority ownership stake? There are a few strategic reasons for an employee-owned company to keep ownership below 50%, for example maintaining government purchasing preferences. The 30% threshold is also aligned with historical legislation, for example Section 1042 of the Internal Revenue Code. Our research shows that if every business became 30% employee-owned, wealth inequality would decrease to historic lows and the wealth of the median household would increase nearly four times. 

While 30% might sound low to some, it’s a very high bar. According to the U.S. Census Bureau there are roughly 1.3 million firms in America with at least 10 employees. We estimate there are approximately 6,000 companies that meet our certification standards. That means fewer than 1 in 200 businesses met our definition of employee-owned - less than half of one percent! 

Ultimately the goal of Certified Employee-Owned is to accelerate the creation of an employee-owned economy. Creating a standard that people know and trust is a means to an end. What matters most is that our standard is clear, easy to understand, and applied consistently so that it creates a bridge between the companies and the community. Uniting our voices through certification will help millions of Americans see the value of this model, create a resource that benefits our community, and increase the number of employee-owned companies. There has never been a more important time to build an employee-owned economy, and we’re thrilled that we can do our part through certification.

This article was originally posted 3/21/22. It was updated on 1/5/2023.

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