Scratch the surface of most business scandals and you’ll find unhealthy corporate cultures. Pick your story—Volkswagen, Wells Fargo, Airbus—in all of these cases, serious business issues stemmed in part from a culture that was more focused on results than on doing the right thing. Ironically, this focus only on business success at the expense of culture ultimately had massive costs for each company—financial, reputational, and cultural.


One of the keys to avoiding these kinds of harmful missteps is understanding your culture—its strengths and its weaknesses. This requires measurable data about culture, which can only be fully obtained through a standalone, dedicated ethical culture survey.

One of the questions I often hear from companies I work with is, “Why can’t I just put a few ethics questions on my employee engagement survey?” Here’s what I tell them.

  • You won’t get enough data about ethical culture. A few questions tacked on to an engagement survey—realistically, I’ve never seen more than five or six questions—aren’t going to give you close to enough information to understand what’s happening across the business. To fully understand how your employees feel about your organization, you need questions about a variety of culture-related topics.
  • The data could be unreliable. Based on where questions about ethical culture are placed in an engagement survey, results can be colored by how employees feel about other topics. If culture questions are near questions about compensation, for example, employees’ responses to the culture questions might be influenced by they feel about that unrelated topic.
  • A dedicated survey shows that ethics matter to the company. By taking the time and resources to implement a dedicated ethical culture survey, organizations send the message that ethics and compliance matter and warrant attention from employees.

 Having a reliable, comprehensive data set about ethical culture has real benefits, too. With a dedicated ethical culture survey, you can:

  • Get a more detailed view of your culture. A standalone survey yields insights into a variety of topics related to ethical culture. Are your managers communicating with their direct reports about ethics? Do employees fear retaliation for speaking up? A standalone ethical culture survey can yield data about all of these topics and more. It also creates possibilities for data correlation, as you can cross-reference data from several questions to gain more insights.
  • Pinpoint trouble spots. In every organization, culture can vary based on location, business unit, or any number of other factors. Running an ethical culture survey with demographic identifiers can identify areas where ethical culture may not be as strong, so you can act to improve it.
  • Allocate resources effectively. When you know where your challenges are, you can take specific action to address them efficiently. That might mean targeting ethics-related communications to certain populations or training specific groups of managers to understand their ethical responsibilities.
  • Track progress over time. As you make targeted changes to improve your ethical culture, you can run a culture survey again to see whether your efforts have really moved the needle on how employees feel about your company’s culture.

A standalone culture survey provides you with an in-depth look at your organization’s ethical culture, with a full data set that you can work with over time to improve your program. It’s not just a way to understand your culture today; rather, it helps you create an action plan for tomorrow. That is why it’s no surprise that 66 percent of the companies in our 2019 World’s Most Ethical Companies data set indicated they run such a survey.

Topics to Include in an Ethical Culture Survey

It’s important to include a broad array of topics in an ethical culture survey, so you can really understand how employees feel about all aspects of your organization’s ethical culture. At Ethisphere, our surveys address the following eight themes (or “pillars”):

  • Awareness of Program and Resources: Employees’ reported level of familiarity with the assets and efforts of the compliance and ethics function.
  • Perceptions of the Function: Employees’ perceptions of the quality and effectiveness of the ethics function’s efforts in providing communications, training, and support.
  • Observing and Reporting Misconduct: How comfortable employees are with reporting perceived misconduct, their reasons for doing so, potential reporting barriers, and the preferred method for reporting.
  • Pressure: The extent and source of pressure employees may be experiencing to compromise standards in order to achieve business goals.
  • Organizational Justice: Employees’ perceptions of whether the company holds wrongdoers accountable and the awareness of disciplinary actions taken.
  • Manager Perceptions: Employees’ view of their supervisor’s conduct, the effectiveness of managers’ communication around ethics and compliance, and employees’ comfort in approaching their managers with concerns.
  • Perceptions of Leadership: How employees view the conduct, values, and communications of senior leaders—also known as “tone at the top.”
  • Perceptions of Peers and Environment: Employees’ perceptions of the ethical priorities of their coworkers, the values of their organization, and their willingness to share opinions.

And we’re not the only ones who think that these topics are key to understanding ethical culture. The companies in our data set that run a standalone ethical culture survey are very likely to cover most, if not all, of these topics. The only topic not included by at least a majority of those companies is how frequently managers discuss ethics-related issues—and even that was included by 46 percent of companies.

On the other hand, companies are much less likely to cover these topics in an engagement survey. At least three-quarters of companies who run engagement surveys do ask about opinions of leadership, opinions of managers, and employee perceptions of organizational justice. But just 64 percent included questions about willingness to report, and only a quarter asked about actual reporting. A paltry 13 percent asked about employee perceptions of training. Asking questions about only a few aspects of ethical culture makes it much more difficult to build a comprehensive picture of how employees really feel about your company’s culture.

As we learn more about the severe business consequences that cultural failures can have, it becomes clearer than ever that companies cannot afford to ignore their ethical culture. Gathering data through a dedicated culture survey is the only way to truly understand culture and track its development over time.

About the Author:

Erica Salmon Byrne is the Executive Vice President for The Ethisphere Institute, where she has responsibility for the organization’s data and services business and works with Ethisphere’s community of clients to assess ethics and compliance programs and promote best practices across industries. Ms. Salmon Byrne also serves as the Chair of the Business Ethics Leadership Alliance; she works with the BELA community to advance the dialogue around ethics and governance, and deliver practical guidance to ethics and compliance practitioners around the globe. She may be reached at erica.salmonbyrne@ethisphere.com.