Simply the best

Picture this: an employer without chains of command or instruction, where there are no managers, directors or secretaries. A company that has ‘associates’ rather than ’employees’, and ‘sponsors’ instead of ‘bosses’, who guide the workforce through a general work area rather than a job description. Furthermore, envisage a firm where employees have no opportunity to be promoted or demoted but, as an alternative, are given an equal share of the organisation’s profits, which changes in line with their salary.

Welcome to WL Gore & Associates, winner of the Sunday Times’ 100 Best Companies to Work For 2004. Founded in 1958, the multinational company has devising a unique way for organising, maintaining and nurturing its staff.

And the ethos is not just limited to the firm’s three plants in Scotland (two in Livingston, one in Dundee). The precept is also adopted throughout Gore’s 45 plants across the globe, which employ a total of 6,000 ‘associates’ – staff, to you and me.

The private company is like any other manufacturing business: it produces, markets and sells goods. In Gore’s case, the company manufactures fabrics and polymer products, namely Gore-Tex clothing.

The big difference, however, is the work environment. This is based on associates’ sense of ownership and equal participation. The associates adhere to four guiding principals: fairness to each other, freedom to encourage, ability to make commitments and consultation with other associates.

But in an environment where everyone is expected to lead each other without a formal chain of command, it would be easy to assume the work structure might break down, leading to a high staff turnover. For Gore, this is not the case.

Of the 426 people employed in Scotland, 311 have been with the firm for more than 10 years, and associate turnover has hovered around 5 per cent for much of the same period.

Maintaining these impressive statistics is not without its challenges, and is in no small part down to Gore’s HR team, represented by Ann Gillies, Lynn Pearson and Vikky England. So what is Gore’s key to a satisfied workforce?

“The cornerstone of associate culture is encouraging individuals to believe in their potential and overall contribution to the power of a small team,” explains Gillies, who has been with Gore for 28 years.

“We are not an organisation where an individual has to earn trust. When we recruit, people need to have faith that they will work co-operatively with others so they can develop into responsible associates. Gore is not an employer for nine-to-fivers,” she adds.

Gillies is at pains to point out the importance of equality and fairness in the workplace – slip the word ’employee’ or ‘management’ into the conversation and she raises an eyebrow. This terminology represents everything Gillies and her HR team have worked hard to remove from the vocabulary and conscience of people who enter the double doors of Gore’s HQ.

Gillies rejects being categorised as a personnel director, putting herself and the rest of the HR team in the same boat as all other associates, who work on a level playing field without any pre-determined channels of communication.

A key part of the HR team is to maintain this status quo of equality and encourage associates to ‘contribute’ independently and collectively in teams loosely based around a work area. In the conventional sense, whether the associate is a secretary, a canteen worker or a test engineer, each and every person has no ‘position’ within the company. They are expected to commit to projects to match their skills, and quickly earn their credibility to define and drive projects.

“An associate is someone who is able to motivate themselves in their given work area as well as make suggestions to fellow associates in a constructive and co-operative way,” adds Gillies.

“We expect them to continually grow and develop while having a sense of ownership about their motivation, function and accomplishment within the company,” she says.

Gillies hammers home the precept of ‘self-motivation’, in which individuals are encouraged to take an interest in a wide variety of job functions or projects. For example, this could include someone who works in a sales role contributing to a different discipline such as marketing.

Multi-tasking is based more on associates having the freedom to suggest ideas to another work area rather than contributing hands-on skills.

In this way, Gore welcomes overlaps in different work areas. For example, a designer’s job function could overlap with a test engineer, or a marketing role may overlap with accounts. The important point is that associates have to use their own judgment to determine if they have the suitable skills, spare time and experience to lend a hand in another work area.

“It’s all about effective and eloquent communication among associates,” Gillies explains. “An associate might have a great idea how a colleague’s work could be done more efficiently or vice versa. It is up to individuals to get together and discuss their ideas in an open and diplomatic manner.”

But there is a catch. There can be a conflict of interests or a breach of health and safety regulations if an associate with no formal training and qualification attempts a role which is beyond their ability.

In this situation, leaders and sponsors help individuals make decisions and gauge whether they have sufficient knowledge to tackle a different work area. Leaders and sponsors may be appointed, but as Lynn Pearson explains, they naturally evolve by demonstrating special knowledge, skills or experience that ‘advances a business objective’.

“Sponsors are elected through teams to ensure these aims are put into practice, and associates commit to the projects to match their skills using their guidance,” says Pearson.

“The sponsors also help associates chart a course in the organisation that will provide personal fulfilment, while maximising their impact on the whole business.”

Although Gore employs some highly qualified and skilled personnel, all new recruits are taken on as equals; it is up to individuals to take charge of their own work area and earn credibility from their fellow associates. Both Pearson and Gillies are adamant that ‘freedom, equality and commitment’ in the workplace has played a vital role in Gore being voted Britain’s Best Company to Work For.

However, there is a financial incentive for associates wanting to be part of a winning company. But with no rigid pay structures to aspire to, associates are clearly not at Gore to get a gold watch at the end of 40 years’ service. People are paid according to the contribution they make to the company and Gore’s maxim is to calculate salaries so they are ‘internally fair and externally competitive’.

When recruiting new people, the HR team has to make a judgement taking into account how these two variables compare with each other.

“Because there is no pay-grading structure, salary increments are made on an ad hoc basis according to a person’s contribution, which goes towards the overall success of the company,” adds Pearson. “This is measured by an official poll conducted among fellow colleagues within their team. Associates rank each other in terms of their contribution to the overall team effort.”

Team leaders, sponsors and HR are included on the ballot sheet and the results are then processed and averaged out to calculate a pay rise proportional to the individual’s effort. As is the case with human nature, the system is open to abuse, with some peers deliberately down-ranking fellow associates on the basis of a financial gain or personal conflict.

Gillies, however, believes such recalcitrance rarely occurs, but if it happens frequently, the HR team adopts the same disciplinary or dismissal procedures enforced by any other company. Nevertheless, associates do have a long-term financial reward to look forward to, which encourages company loyalty and contribution. Gore has a stock ownership scheme in which all associates are given a share in the company.

Held in trust, the share is increased in value annually according to a percentage, which changes in relation to an individual’s contribution to the team.

So where will Gore’s HR strategy be in 10 years’ time?

“Our workforce is like an amoeba, a single-cell organism, which continually adapts and changes shape in response to an altering environment,” sums ups Gillies. “Similar to the amoeba, our HR strategy could be a completely different animal in a decade’s time than it is now. But we will guard our culture carefully to ensure Gore is a great place to work. The people are the company.”

The view from the shopfloor

John Housego, manufacturing leader of Gore’s fabrics plant

Housego says he was impressed by the company’s work ethic right from the word go: “The thing I like about Gore is its policy of putting people first,” he explains. “I get a sense of ownership within the company by fulfilling a variety of roles while guiding and helping others.” Housego says he is particularly pleased with the firm’s attitude towards equality in the workplace which encourages associates to adopt a ‘friendly pecking order’. “The great thing about the company is that people are allowed to work under their own initiative and share ideas with each other,” he adds. “You can come to Gore with a high IQ and many qualifications, but that doesn’t count for anything in the workplace. Knowledge and a passion to contribute are key assets.”

Carol Storrie, product development

Another advocate of Gore’s policy of freedom and fairness is Carol Storrie, who is involved in product development. Previously working for a kilt maker, Storrie says she was pleasantly surprised when she started work at Gore after changing career. “I like working for the firm because I can be my own boss and be in control of my own career,” she says. “Unlike some companies, Gore does not allow grievances and personal conflicts to manifest at work. There is a strong sense of work commitment and everyone communicates with each other.”

HR’s contribution

Adopting the same work culture for 46 years, WL Gore claims its personnel strategy serves the best interests of its 426 associates. The company’s HR team constantly evaluates the contribution of its staff, a workforce that varies from machine operators to engineers and scientists.

Alongside regular HR meetings, the team carries out an annual Associate Survey, which is completed by every member of staff. The questions examine a host of workplace issues, ranging from culture effectiveness, job satisfaction and fairness. “We spend a lot of time analysing the results and give individual teams feedback so they have a good idea of their contribution to the company,” explains Ann Gillies. “Someone who is driven by status and ascending a career ladder is not going to be happy here. We do not recruit people who are only motivated by promotion and money in the long-term.”

According to the Britain’s Best Company to Work For survey, 87 per cent of associates said they would miss working for Gore if they left, while 86 per cent believe they can make a difference to the company.

The annual sales of £26m and a five per cent staff turnover confirms staff are happy to work at Gore. “I believe people want to feel involved and important. They know what is happening in the workplace and believe they can make a difference to the overall operation of the company,” says Gillies. “No system is perfect. We are here to make money and have fun. WL Gore provides a vehicle for our associates to do that.”

About the company

WL Gore Associates (Scotland)
Number of staff            426
Number in HR team      3
Staff turnover                5%
Annual sales                 £26m
Male:female ratio          61:39
Typical Job                   Engineer/scientists

What has worked for WL Gore

  • Equality within the workplace

  • Salaries proportional to contribution

  • Staff evaluated by each other

  • No hierarchy within the company

  • Multi-tasking

  • Emphasis on leadership

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