Amid copious criticism of its working practices, Sports Direct has announced the appointment of 30-year-old Alex Balacki – a Barnstaple store manager – as employee representative on its board of directors. According to a Sports Direct announcement, Balacki will sit on the firm’s six-strong `leadership team’: a head-office unit specifically tasked with unearthing leadership issues and setting the firm’s managerial tone.

However, in a downbeat assessment of the move, the Unite union has warned: “As a company appointee, [Balacki] faces an uphill struggle to convince the workforce that he will be their eyes and ears in the boardroom. If the company is to go down the route of workers on the board, then they should be elected in an open and transparent process.”

Unite has also urged Balacki to meet with its executives so they can inform him of workers’ concerns at the firm. But is Unite being overtly pessimistic here? And what really is the best way to represent workers on a board?

“Employee representation is very common in many parts of Europe,” says The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper. “The problem that Balacki will have to very carefully consider is, ‘Who am I really working for?’ It’s incredibly difficult not to lose sight of your true objectives in any situation like this. As you join a management team in which you would naturally want to be accepted and valued, is it possible to be consistently at odds with that team’s priorities? Could you reasonably adopt the type of adversarial position that the role would require, and avoid being excluded, ostracised or otherwise ignored?”

Cooper explains: “The onus is on Sports Direct to say, ‘This may not be a perfect arrangement from Unite’s perspective, but just because Balacki hasn’t been elected doesn’t mean that it’s not worth doing.’ All told, the firm has taken a bold step in the right direction. Obviously, the senior management team will have to evaluate how well Balacki is performing in meetings, and a staff engagement survey after he’s been in place for, say, six or 12 months will reveal a) whether he’s making a difference in the role, and b) the extent to which he’s trusted to represent employees’ views. It’s a massive job for him to undertake, and it all really hinges on his ability to be authentic. That will require him to faithfully communicate input from a large, minimum-wage staff base, while maintaining a constructive relationship with the board.”

Cooper adds: “Balacki will need to muster all his interpersonal skills to ensure that the board will trust him to represent them fairly, and to not be overtly adversarial in the way he represents their views. He must also prove that he can take responsibility for being part of any top-level decisions that affect the workforce – for example, if something doesn’t go his way in a board vote, he would have to convey that he was in the minority position, rather than simply washing his hands of it and saying, ‘Nothing to do with me – they made me concede.’”

“If he sees himself as powerless, then the role is powerless. So it’s really up to him and the senior management to collaborate on making it work, and I think that the real secret here – if there is one – is transparency.”

For further thoughts on how to create an effective relationship with your boss, check out this learning item from the Institute

Image of Sports Direct shop courtesy of Tony Baggett, via Shutterstock