Cracking corporate culture

A cultural audit can provide answers – but be sure to act on them
By Michael Bach
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/02/2016

When employers ask for a cultural audit, it’s usually due to disruptive workplace issues that have been making employees tune out and turn off. 

A cultural audit is for organizations to examine a negative dynamic that has been identified to be affecting people. Bullying, aggression and other anti-social behaviours are among the issues that damage a workplace and cause employees to withdraw or even leave.

When to do a cultural audit

The goal of a cultural audit is to identify workplace issues and make recommendations to improve employee engagement. Assessing a workplace environment focuses the attention on the culture of the organization, rather than employees. An audit helps an employer understand the issues, their cause and the effects on people and the organization. 

As they say, culture eats strategy for breakfast. Workplace culture affects how people feel about their jobs, whether they’re going to contribute or just show up and, ultimately, organizational performance and customer satisfaction. Employers with great customer satisfaction ratings also rank well for employee happiness, which cascades into multiple points of value for organizations. 

A cultural audit can identify the character of a workplace to determine if it is less inviting for one group or another; across gender, racial or ethic identity, where people were born and other personal characteristics. A good cultural audit can support leadership to encourage a culture that’s equitable, where people can bring their identities to the workplace. 

What can a cultural audit fix?

Leadership and senior management set the tone for an organization. And though every organization is different, with its own goals, objectives and challenges, there will be similarities of culture across a sector or profession. For instance, an environment driven heavily by sales performance may tend to be more aggressive, which may lead to bullying or other unwelcome aggressive behaviours. 

But that doesn’t mean a workplace driven by sales performance cannot inherently be warm, respectful and welcoming. On the contrary, when organizations deal with negative culture issues, sales teams improve their performance as employee engagement increases.

Though leadership sets the tone, it’s also true that with all the best intentions and strategies, it’s hard to maintain a positive culture. One bad apple can spoil the bunch. Sometimes, size can be a factor, and a leader who touches all parts of an organization with less frequency has fewer opportunities to reinforce culture from the top. Sometimes, what happens when leaders leave the room can be a markedly different experience than the example set by leadership, with damaging effects that extend widely and can affect an organization’s reputation.

The fact is it’s all too easy to negatively impact a workplace culture and harder to fix the damage. Middle management has a responsibility to enable the culture set by leadership and when a person in a position of power has had a negative influence on workplace culture, the cultural audit needs to ask why her behaviour is acceptable in her mind.

The goal is to identify those who are not in line with the workplace culture, to understand why the issue is happening and help them through it. And cultural audits have helped employers respond to workplace issues as they arise, so they don’t fester until they become toxic.

A lot of listening

A cultural audit should include one-on-one interviews with leadership and management, focus groups and a census or survey of employees, allowing people anonymity and multiple opportunities for input. A good cultural audit should also examine the policies and procedures in place. 

It’s about looking at the data from all these sources to assess the nature of the issue, with recommendations to manage it and mitigate risk, where damage has been done. It takes experience to understand what to look for and see where the weather vane is pointing.

Beyond understanding processes and procedures, establishing trust with employees is crucial for a cultural audit to deliver reliable results. Privacy is employees’ top concern when talking about workplace issues. When people don’t trust that the information shared will be confidential, the potential to deliver an effective audit is severely undermined.

This underscores the value of third-party audits. Just as organizations use an external third-party auditor to ensure reliability in financial results, they use third-party specialists for cultural audits to ensure that same kind of reliability and independence. 

Third parties build trust with people that allows them to collect high-quality data by developing processes with their data and privacy policies to create reliable results employers can act on.

Take action

Bad news isn’t easy to deliver and it’s even harder to take. Employers embarking on a cultural audit need to be brave — to be prepared to accept the findings, take responsibility and act on the results. Not acting on an assessment can erode employee trust and damage morale to the point of employees withdrawing and not participating — or leaving their jobs — leading to low productivity and lower performance. 

A lack of response will further erode the workplace culture which, if left unchecked, will affect outward measures of success such as market share, financial results and brand value, fundraising, investment, partnerships and customer growth (depending on the sector).

It’s valuable when leadership can respect and understand that employees going into a cultural audit fear nothing will happen. Many see little value in divulging how they feel because they expect nothing good will come of it —there is little belief the situation will change. But the bravery required of leaders in cultural audits can make a difference.

All the best for the best

For those strong enough to act on the results, the outcomes are all positive — there is culture change, people feel they have been heard and can feel they work for someone who cares, which rebuilds trust. Productivity is boosted, along with employee engagement, and organizations have happy people who feel valued for what they contribute.

At their best, cultural audits have a significant impact on how an organization is seen to perform, from the outside as well as within. More often than not, employers do something about the audit — those that are ready for a cultural audit understand that employees are people who want to show up and work in a positive environment where they feel valued. And these are the kinds of people who are bound to contribute and do more for the organization.


Michael Bach is the founder and CEO of the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion in Toronto. For more information, visit www.ccdi.ca.

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