Need to correct a toxic workplace culture? Or want to take the pulse of your workforce? Conducting a culture review is a vital first step.
Reviews into workplace culture, parliamentary committees and industry or workplace specific examinations such as the Set the Standard Report and the WA Parliament’s inquiry into sexual harassment in the FIFO mining industry are just some of the recent examples of workplace practice that have been thrust into the public spotlight.
We are seeing unprecedented interest from investors, potential employees, consumers and other stakeholders in the internal workings of the businesses they engage with, invest in, and support.
For most businesses, “do nothing” is no longer an option when dealing with workplace conflicts and poor behaviour. The potential for reputational damage has become a major concern as employees are able to take to social media to air their grievances.
A new focus on transparency as part of companies’ corporate environmental, social and governance (ESG) strategies is emerging. This is particularly apparent in the gradual departure from non-disclosure agreements as a means of resolving sexual harassment allegations, and in corporate Australia’s shift to publicly reporting complaints.
Workplace reviews should be at the forefront of mind for boards and executives looking to meet this demand for transparency, proactively manage culture and prevent harm.
How to conduct a culture review
A workplace investigation has traditionally been the primary option for addressing reports of inappropriate behaviour in a work environment. But in recent years, there has been a shift away from sole reliance on the formal, reactive approach whereby an organisation would wait for a formal complaint before conducting any further enquiry.
Increasingly so, organisations are now opting for a proactive intervention in the form of a workplace culture review. While a review may identify historical issues, its primary focus is on looking forward by giving a business the opportunity to address challenges that will shape its future. These could range from undesirable or unproductive behaviours to inadequate systems or processes that could indicate a poor workplace culture.
In a typical culture review, the review team will:
- Work closely with key people in the business to understand the aims of the review;
- Design a methodology to meet the organisation’s needs;
- Assist with stakeholder communication, including messaging for employees and management about the scope and purpose of the review and the process that will be followed;
- Consider organisational background, including relevant policies, procedures, employee data and incident reports;
- Interview participants to identify and test issues and themes;
- Prepare a report that summarises themes and emerging issues from the evidence collated.
What prompts a culture review?
For boards or executives, a review can serve as a proactive risk management tool which helps them get to the bottom of issues that they may be aware of but are struggling to pinpoint or investigate.
Examples of issues that may trigger a review in a work environment include:
- Whistleblower or anonymous complaints
- Instances where a complainant is reluctant to proceed
- Evidence of team conflict, high turnover or absenteeism
- A suspicion that a particular issue may exist and the need to quantify the risk it presents
In a recent review, I helped to examine the experiences of a cohort within a large resources business in my role as a Workplace Consultant at Q Workplace Solutions. The review was initiated following high turnover rates and accounts of suspected under-reporting of sexual harassment within this particular cohort.
As part of the culture review, participants were interviewed about their personal experiences, and their perception of the causes, risk factors and impacts of sexual harassment in the workplace. The results of the review revealed a higher rate sexual harassment compared to the industry average. This was accompanied by low levels of reporting.
By hearing the voices of the participants, the business was presented with insights into the origins of the problem, including everyday sexism that pervaded the workplace, the barriers to reporting, as well as practical measures to improve safety in the workplace.
Advantages of a workplace culture review
The less structured nature of a review often means all manner of stories and disclosures come to light through the interview process. Having skilled interviewers with expertise in trauma-informed practice is key to gaining participants’ trust and helping them to feel at ease. This will help to create a work environment where participants’ feel comfortable to candidly share their experiences.
In my experience, the commitment to confidentiality and de-identification of evidence puts participants at greater ease.
When discreet complaints arise during a review, having a well-defined process with clear boundaries and aims preserves the ability for a formal process to proceed at a later stage, should this need to take place.
Boards and executives also face challenges when a whistleblower – often anonymously – raises concerns about the behaviour of a particular individual or team in a toxic workplace. If an anonymous complainant chooses not to participate in an investigation and the complaint contains little detail, these reports can be difficult or even impossible to investigate.
In such circumstances, rather than ignore the information raised, a review enables you to probe the broader issues raised.
Opportunities for growth and improvement
One of the most useful outcomes of a review is gaining a frank assessment of an organisation’s culture and leadership. There is often a higher level of trust in experienced, independent reviewers than in an internally conducted process.
Leadership effectiveness, individual behaviours, compliance with values, attitudes and management aptitude are all elements of culture that can be uncovered and weighed through a review.
When concerns about culture and leadership are exposed through a review, it provides an organisation with the opportunity to reflect on the culture they want to cultivate, and what measures will help to get them there.
It also highlights whether gaps between organisational values and on-the-ground behaviour are due to some employees’ poor performance or are indicative of a deeper problem. In many cases, a review will demonstrate that the disconnect between theory and practice comes down to failures in training, education and communication.
Given the nature of a review, free from the bounds of strict confidentiality required in an investigation, there is one final advantage to a review worth highlighting – the message it sends to an organisation’s workforce.
A review signals that you are invested in hearing about employee concerns and are willing to act on them, that bad behaviour will not be tolerated, and that a safe workplace is the absolute priority.
This article was originally published in HRM Online.