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The Data & the Details: How to Contextualize Culture Survey Findings into Calls to Action

Culture surveys produce an awful lot of data, but unless you understand how to put that data in its proper place, and what story the data tells, it can be hard to turn all of that information into transformation fuel for your organization’s culture.

by Emilie Anderson

When you measure culture, what are you really measuring? It’s a great question to ask when undertaking a cultural assessment, and there’s a layered approach to take to it.

The first layer is probably the most obvious one, which is employees’ familiarity with company culture, which for a lot of organizations will look like company resources, policies, procedures, and codes.

The more interesting measurements come later, in the second layer, when you start to evaluate employees’ perceptions of these things. So, you might get employees telling you how effective they think their training is or how readable your codes are.

The third layer, which works hand in hand with that second piece, is how your tools are actually informing your program. Employees might say that they think that training is effective in certain ways. When you take a survey of a whole population, you learn about the broader effect of your training, of your code, and of any of the policies and procedures that you have in place to protect your managers and employees. You start to pick out the data that speaks to not only people’s perceptions of things, but if you have codes directing what misconduct may or may not look like, what reporting should look like, and what a speak-up culture should look like.

When you employ all three layers, then you have data that tells you how often people are reporting and where they’re reporting it to, which allows you to paint a big picture that includes what employees think of their speak-up resources and how those resources are actually directing the company culture itself.

This is where companies often hit a disconnect between what they expect their survey data will say and what it actually says. The most common surprise of this sort is around the data on how people prefer to make reports of misconduct, and I think that surprise happens for a couple of different reasons.

One, organizations are putting a lot of company resources into building out platforms for people to make reports, whether this is web reporting, hotline reporting, etc. But what the data really shows us is that people feel most comfortable making these types of reports to human beings and oftentimes to their managers. As a result, organizations are often surprised by the fact that the resources used to build out their speak-up platform are not as effective as they hoped that they would be.

Two, organizations are surprised to learn that employees feel more comfortable making these reports to a human being, which points to established ethics and compliance programs and some of the gaps that may be in those programs. If people are making a report to an automated system, there’s usually a follow up procedure to that. That system goes somewhere. There’s somebody monitoring it or there’s a hard copy for people to look at. But if it’s more word-of-mouth reporting, you might learn that your managers don’t know exactly what to do with those reports. Or, you might learn that people are speaking to their colleagues and colleagues don’t know whether to take this as a venting session or if they should report to a manager.

So, how people report is not only surprising because of the methods of reporting, but because it starts to pull out some of the gaps in training and in the speak up culture in general. A lot of companies, especially if they’re undergoing their first survey, may succumb to the temptation of thinking that even though they’re going to take a culture assessment survey, they are confident that the survey will simply confirm that they already have a great system in place that works beautifully. But that really creates a big opportunity for surprising results that tell the organization that they did not do as well as they thought they would, or that things are not as great as they think they are.

One of the greatest parts of my job is that I get to work with a lot of different organizations that are really passionate about creating a safe, reliable workplace for their employees. It’s really disappointing for them when you’ve committed time, resources, and a career to doing that, and find that maybe there are gaps in it. But that’s the nature of culture assessments, and that type of work is changing all of the time. There are always new gaps revealed by the survey, so it’s important to take them in stride and learn that a good program will be a flexible one. However long and frequently you do surveys, you’re always going to find new gaps. But that just gives you a new area of improvement to zoom in on for the next year.

It goes without saying that no organization undertakes this sort of process if they don’t really care about advancing a culture of integrity and really care about having a fantastic ethics culture in their organization. So even if they don’t get the results they’re looking for, the fact that they’re doing this at all speaks quite highly of their intent and their commitment to bettering their workplace.

Data is not magic. It requires analysis in order to inform meaningful plans to affect change. At a basic level, companies can review how, and at what rate, employees are utilizing resources. So it depends on what the results really are. If the results reflect low performance because employees don’t really know what’s going on in your program, for example, then the thing to do is examine how the organization is communicating with its employees. If you have a really great program and employees don’t know about it, the strength of your program is less relevant.

But often what we see is a mix of a different things—usually, they are generally strong programs that are showing gaps in certain areas of the organization. For that, a really effective way to look at this is to compare either demographic qualities or department levels and figure out where things are going really well and where things are showing more opportunity for growth. From there, pick one of your strongest departments that is reporting a lot of misconduct and see if they have really great reviews of its managers. You might want to talk to those managers and ask what they’re doing to build relationships that are strong enough that employees are feeling comfortable making these reports. From there, you can evaluate the difference between that manager and your lowest performing demographic.

With culture surveys, there are standard topics that are measured, and then there are topics that the organizations themselves really want to measure, either because it’s information they like, or it is something they have gone after, historically. From the organizational perspective, it pays to know what the most relevant data to gather is. And the best way to know that is to know your program and your organization.

This might sort itself out in a few different ways. One of them is the maturity of your program. As we mentioned earlier, this might be an organization’s first time running a survey. Sometimes, we see organizations that don’t have an established compliance program approaching us to undertake a survey to get a temperature read on the company culture to know where to start when building a program. Some of the data that organization might gather, as compared to an organization that’s run this survey six times with an extremely mature program, just wouldn’t be as valuable. Knowing where your program is maturity-wise can really help guide what types of questions you want to ask.

The other side of that is knowing what’s going on in other places within your organization. If your organization is measuring click metrics, if you’re sending out pulse surveys, if you’re doing exit interviews and round tables, then it’s likely that you’re gathering some sort of demographic information, whether that’s department level, manager level, or tenure with the company. But you are gathering data that’s comparable. If you’re doing a culture survey, you want to make sure that you’re gathering information about the respondents that is comparable to the information that you already gather in those other places so they can combine to form a cohesive picture.

While a culture survey can give you a lot of information, it is not going to paint a complete picture of your company culture. But if you’re able to pair that with click metrics, pulse surveys, and other efforts that the organization is making at a company level, then you can paint a more holistic picture that might fill in some of the gaps for you.

Common areas of opportunity are in areas of misconduct and pressure in the workplace. Those are both big uphill battles for a lot of organizations. And even in the organizations that are struggling in these areas, it is not necessarily for lack of effort or for a lack of strength in their program. When you’re dealing with a lot of people, it really only takes one incident to skew some of those results.

The biggest way to make an impact on those results are immediate managers. There’s a strong correlation between the relationships that employees have with their managers and their relationships that employees choose to have with their organization. The frequency with which immediate managers speak with their teams and to their employees about ethics directly informs employees’ willingness to comply with ethics measures, to report when things are not going well, and to act in favor of their company culture to a really, really strong degree.

Organizational pressure is one of the eight pillars of an ethical culture—it is the sense of urgency that employees might feel around their work that could encourage them to make decisions that directly go against company policies, laws, or an ethical overall approach to culture. Often when we come across this, it is not a case where employees are feeling this pressure because somebody is telling them to. It’s rare that we find organizations where managers are saying, “Meet this quota at any cost.” It’s more often the case that they’re saying. “Our numbers are low, we have to really make sure we meet this quota,” and employees feel that pressure to make number, make sales, make deals to satisfy clients and customers…whatever the solution may be. But where that becomes an issue is when employees internalize that urgency as a need to cut corners.

With most organizations that are experiencing some trouble in the area of pressure, it’s usually less about what’s being said and more about what’s going unsaid. A really effective measure against pressure, then, is to be super explicit. When a manager is delivering a “rally the troops” sort of message, the words they use to express how important it is to hit a certain quota should be followed by, “but that should not happen at the expense of our ethics, at the expense of the code of conduct, at the expense of culture.”

For those organizations that are thinking about undertaking their first culture survey, try to be open-minded about the process and prepare yourself for the true vulnerability that it takes for an employee to respond to a survey fully and honestly. Even though surveys are anonymous, they require trust from the employees, and employees who answer are really invested in their workplace. So it’s in the organization’s best interests to be as forthcoming with the results as it can be to communicate to employees that they have been heard, and that the process is being taken seriously.

The opportunities for growth that survey results highlight don’t necessarily speak to a lack of strength in the program, but they might point to places where organizations can bolster their resources.

Thank your employees for their candidness and for their responses. Lean into the results. Because large organizations, especially, tend to go into surveys expecting one outcome and receiving another. Trust in your employees who answered the survey itself. They care, and honoring them is your next best step towards a successful ethics and compliance program and a strong culture of ethics.

To connect with the Ethisphere Culture team and learn how you can measure and elevate your organization’s culture, please click here. For further reading, check out the 2023 Ethical Culture Report: Lessons from the Pandemic, and the special report, The Eight Pillars of an Ethical Culture.

Emilie Anderson is a Culture Analyst on the Data & Services team where she assists in carrying out Culture Assessments to evaluate organizations’ Ethics and Compliance measures. Previously, she worked to execute ethics audits to determine companies’ protective measures in areas such as ESG, workforce automation, workers’ rights, and artificial intelligence.

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