Just as fish don’t know they’re in water, it can be hard to objectively understand the culture we swim in every day at work. And just as the condition of the surrounding water impacts a fish’s survival, the health of your company culture can make or break your business.
In their book Built to Last, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras spent six years researching 18 companies that had stayed at the top of their markets for more than 50 years. They found that all 18 companies hired, developed and managed employees based on clear cultural principles and beliefs. This helped the companies stay at the top of their game.
While company culture clearly impacts success, many business leaders find it hard to cultivate their own because culture is hard to define and recognize.
That’s why company culture audits are so important. They reflect your culture back to you, which can help you better understand how to improve your culture, and how to hire employees that will thrive in your unique company culture.
Here’s how to audit your company culture and make your company a more enjoyable and productive place to work.
What Do You Want Your Culture To Be?
The companies Collins and Porras studied — including General Electric, Hewlett-Packard, and 3M, among others — all knew what they wanted their culture to be. Do you what you want for your company?
Before auditing your organizational culture, you must know what you want your culture to encompass. Company cultures can vary greatly — the 18 companies Collins and Porras studied did not share the same cultural attributes — but to be successful, companies must be clear on their goals and desires for their culture. Are you aiming for a culture that prioritizes training and education? Do you want your culture to value teamwork and collaboration? Does your ideal culture involve a high focus on customer service?
Define your ideal company culture before you begin a culture audit. It will make the results of the audit much more useful to your organization.
What a Culture Audit Tells Your Company
First it’s important to understand: a culture audit is not a measure of individual or team performance. If your company values teamwork but a culture audit reveals that your employees do not work together well, this points to flaws in the culture, not the employees.
A culture audit evaluates the working environment, identifies the unwritten norms and rules that govern employee interactions, and highlights barriers to effective work practices. So if your culture audit reveals that teams don’t work together well, it’s a sign that you need to look for unwritten norms or communication barriers that discourage teamwork. Perhaps the physical layout of the office makes it difficult for employees to work together, or bonuses are tied to individual performance which incentives employees to focus only on their own work.
It’s equally important to recognize that you cannot change employee behavior in order to change company culture. This must be approached the other way around. Company culture influences employee behavior — if bonuses are given to highest individual performers, employees are competing with each other and will gravitate to working alone, no matter how much lip service is given to the importance of working in teams.
A culture audit highlights these aspects of your organizational culture that you may not have previously realized existed. This is useful in understanding whether your current organizational culture lives up to your aims and identifying ways to improve it. A culture audit also highlights the strengths of your culture, which provides a guide for finding and hiring candidates that are a good cultural fit for your organization.
Three Ways to Audit Your Company Culture
To understand your organizational culture you must observe it impartially, as an outsider. Some companies even bring in a third party to conduct an audit, as a way to receive an unbiased opinion.
If you’re conducting your own culture audit, here is a three-pronged approach for examining your company culture from multiple angles to get a more full picture. Remember to act as an observer in these scenarios.
Take a walk through the office, making mental notes and observations without interfering in the work being done. What you observe on your walk will be helpful for informing your culture interviews and surveys.
As you take your culture walk, observe:
- The physical layout of the office. Who is allocated space where? How are common areas used? What does this say about the relationships between employees?
- The mood of the office. Do people seem engaged, happy, excited, withdrawn, indifferent or discouraged? Do they smile and interact with you as you pass their desks? Emotions indicate values — people don’t get excited or upset about things that are not important to them — so observe any conflicts or disagreements. What do these disagreements tell you about your company’s values?
- The objects around the office. What objects sit on desks and hang on walls? The physical objects around the office tell you more than you’d think. The Balance describes a company where no employees had family photos, plants or knick knacks in their workspaces. Though no official announcement had been made, it was clear the employees felt the company was going to be closed down within the next month — they were right.
Send out a survey to all employees, asking for their feedback on the culture of your organization. Use the survey answers to confirm (or revisit) the observations you gathered during your culture walk, and to reveal further culture insights.
A culture survey should be completed by all employees in the organization, so you get a broad representation of employees of all different types and at different levels.
Your culture survey should ask questions about:
- Understanding of and connection to company goals. Do employees understand how they fit into the organization? Do they believe their work is important to company goals?
- Commitment to coworkers and teams. Survey questions should help you understand how your employees relate to their teams. Are they proud to be a member of their team? Does their team inspire them to do their best work? Do they enjoy working with their colleagues?
- Feeling valued. Do employees believe the company values their work? Do they believe they are compensated fairly?
- Feeling supported. Do employees feel their managers and supervisors support their career growth? Do they feel the company supports diversity and inclusion in the workplace? Do they feel comfortable going to HR if they have a problem at work?
- Values and principles. What are the values of the organization? Do employee values match those of the company?
- Company decision-making and priorities. How do decisions get made within the organization? What are the key business priorities for the company?
After conducting culture surveys, you can dig even deeper with culture interviews. These can be one-on-one interviews or focus groups with a number of employees. Not all employees need to be interviewed — choose a representative sample of employees from different departments and at different levels of the organization.
Interviews and focus groups can elicit incredibly rich discussions and information about culture. Note that it takes a skilled and respected interviewer or facilitator to create a safe environment for soliciting this type of feedback. It may be worth hiring an external facilitator for this step.
Culture interviews can explore questions like:
- If this company were a person, how would you describe it? When you talk about where you work, what do you tell people?
- What are the “unwritten rules” for working in this organization? What do we always do? What do we never do?
- How does the company handle conflict? Good news? Bad news? Deadlines? How does it handle crises?
- How does the company make decisions?
- How does the company treat customers, shareholders, and employees?
- What makes an employee successful at this company? What behaviors are awarded with promotions?
- What advice do you have for new employees?
By evaluating your culture, you will be able to identify areas of improvement and find ways to help your culture better align with your goals for the company. You will also be better able to hire and retain employees that align with that culture. Get started now: take your culture walk today, and follow it with a culture survey and culture interviews. Then, convene with your HR team and get to work evaluating the information you’ve gathered and crafting a strategy to improve. Your employees will have a better experience at work, and your company will reap the rewards.
Chris Lennon is Vice President of Product Management at BirdDogHR. He is responsible for ensuring the BirdDogHR Talent Management System meets the needs and exceeds the expectations of our customers. He does this by working directly with customers and partners, identifying key market opportunities, developing product strategies and bringing exciting new products, features and partnerships to market.