Nonviolent Employment

Nonviolent Employment

Photo of folks holding hands in a circle

Since I’ve begun looking back on past experiences through the lens of Nonviolent Communication, I have come to see this philosophy as permeating many of the policies and decisions with which I’ve been involved over the years.

I’ve written most recently about a needs-based approach to managing projects, and the congruence of that approach with nonviolent precepts.

Only since reflecting on that post have I noted a similar nonviolent thread within the employment policies we had at Familiar.

Voluntary Assignment

“Accept the fact that we have to treat almost anybody as a volunteer.”

~ Peter F. Drucker

Everyone working with Familiar had the freedom to decide which assignments they wanted to work on, and which not. Folks could, at any stage (well, in practice at Sprint boundaries) opt in or out of working on something that was already in progress.

This meant that work had to be in some way attractive, literally. And yes, sometimes this meant we as a company turned away potential business because no one found it attractive enough to commit to working on it.

In NVC terms, if a piece of work did not meet someone’s needs, they were under no obligation to spend time on it.


Everyone had the choice of how they wished to engage with the company. This meant they could consider what they needed – most obviously, in terms of security and continuity of engagement. The options ranged, in practice, from independent subcontractor, through contractor, employee and on to e.g. indentured serf.

And this was flexible, in that someone could change their status as and when they saw fit. In NVC terms, people could make direct, specific, and actionable requests as to the way in which they wanted to engage with the company, at any given time, contingent upon their needs as they saw them.


Everyone was free to set their own rate or salary. At the time this was an idea borrowed from i.e. Semco and St Luke’s and rationalised via Transactional Analysis. By which I mean that we wanted a community where everyone could learn how to relate to each other as adults. Who can know what someone’s income / salary / fee needs are better than that person themselves? Indeed, can anyone ever have even an inkling of the personal circumstances of someone else? If not, how could it ever be possible to meet those needs?


Everyone was free to choose their own equipment, supplied by the company if that’s what they wanted (needed). They were also free to choose their own development tools (editors, repositories, etc), hours of working, and place(s) of work. Whatever best met their individual needs.


With the benefit of hindsight, I can see some close parallels between the policies we evolved at Familiar, and the precepts of Nonviolent Communication. I feel sure that these parallels – and in particular the almost accidental focus on folks’ needs, and their subsequent making of requests – contributed much to the wonderful working environment and sense of community at Familiar.

I believe too that the policies described here are the natural evolution of the basic idea that is McGregor’s “Theory Y” (not that we had any managers in Familiar).

– Bob

Further Reading

Open Minds ~ Andy Law
Sociocracy – Wikipedia entry
Holacracy – Website
Holocracy – Definition

  1. Hi Bob. You write in the past tense as if Familiar no longer exists. Is that true?

    • Yup. I left around 2000. I think they stumbled on for a year or two after that before folding.

      • Damn. I hate when orgs that implement humane work policies go out of business. It gives command and control loving leaders more evidence for cracking the whip.

      • In my reality, it was a need for command and control that led to its demise.

  2. So, trying to maintain people-centric policies/procedures as an org grows only works up to a certain size threshold? After that threshold is exceeded, it’s either flip to machine-centric policies/procedures or die?

    • No, not that. I put it down to courage, the courage (or lack thereof) to continue in the face of eg uncertainty.

  3. OK, I must have misunderstood your use of the word “need”. I thought that you meant the only way Familiar would survive was to convert to command & control. Maybe you meant “perceived need”?

    • I was using “need” in the Nonviolent Communication sense. “Perceived need” might also cover it.

      • Phew, I’m glad!

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