Secrets to a Successful Workplace Culture Review

Angela Seach
April 14, 2021

As a manager, you may from time to time have a sense that things are NQR (not quite right) in the workplace.  You may have had someone sidle up to you “on the quiet”, to let you know that things are not great in the team, or that people are worried that things are inexplicably going wrong. Perhaps there is unusually high turnover? Without concrete and specific issues to investigate, you are left with not much beyond that uneasy feeling.

So what do you do?  Ignore it and hope it will go away? Er, no, that won’t work. Launch an investigation?  Into what exactly?

In circumstances where there are broad indicators that things are not working so well, a workplace review is your best option.

A workplace review is a qualitative exploration of what is occurring in a workplace, by using a structured interview process which allows employees the opportunity to express their opinions and perspectives, on how they experience their workplace.

The information obtained in this way provides an accurate insight into the employee experience of the workplace: what might be limiting or stopping them from performing at their best, the strengths and weaknesses of the teamwork and team culture, as well as providing guidance on areas for improvement.

The interviews are conducted in a confidential setting, and on an anonymous basis.

Secrets of a successful workplace review

Once you have decided to do a workplace review, there are some important factors to work through to make it successful:

Make sure the workplace review process is fit for purpose. If you do have specific, serious allegations, a workplace review will not be an appropriate intervention, because it cannot provide findings of fact. Evidence is not collected or tested.  A review’s focus is on opinion and perceptions. In such circumstances, an investigation is probably a better approach.  If you are looking to gather feedback on a specific leader’s performance, a workplace review is not ideal – a structured 360-degree feedback tool is probably a better option.

  • Be clear about the scope of the review
    • Do not ask for employee’s perceptions or opinions on things they are unlikely to know about – it wastes their time and potentially their goodwill. 
    • Be willing to hear and act on what people have to say.  There is nothing more damaging to employee morale, or leader’s credibility, when staff go to the trouble of providing feedback during a workplace review, only to find that their leaders ignore, dismiss or become defensive when they hear what people actually think and feel about their organisation.
    • Scenario-plan for issues or feedback coming from the review which is out of the scope of the review.  As a starting point, this involves being clear and up-front with participants about the limits of confidentiality and anonymity. For example, an employee discloses a sexual assault during the interview.  This is not something you can take on as anonymous general feedback about workplace culture – it must be acted upon, and consequently, the reviewer must pass on the details to HR.  It is important that participants are clear on these limits before the interview begins.
  • Carefully select which employees will be invited to participate. Consider the different streams and strata being represented- the different shifts/rosters are covered, different employment types (eg casuals) are covered, and that different locations are represented.

Careful consideration is required with decisions around limits on the number of interviews, and how participants will be selected if there are more volunteers than interview slots.  Be transparent with employees about how and why these decisions have been made – who you exclude from a review can send powerful (if unintended) messages about the credibility of the work itself. If there are limits on the number of interview participants, consider whether the review should include a broader opportunity for employee feedback, such as a survey.

  • Set up and conduct the interviews in a way that lives up to the intent of the exercise:
    • Make sure that the venue for the interviews and the logistics put in place to allow participation are consistent with any undertakings made in relation to confidentiality and anonymity. This means selecting a private location, where participants can come and go without being observed, and setting up an interview schedule that avoids participants running into each other en-route to or from the venue.  (This is an example of a situation where virtual interviews have significant advantages over face-to-face interviews).
    • Use a consistent set of questions, which are designed to get up “onto the balcony”- questions that uncover patterns, dynamics or causal factors which may not be obvious to those “on the dancefloor”.
    • Allow sufficient time and space for a participant to feel heard.  If that means setting up a second interview or arranging to receive further perspectives/insights in writing, be prepared to make such an offer.  Getting this right is crucial to the credibility of the eventual outcomes of the review – if participants feel that they weren’t heard, it is less likely they will be supportive of the outcomes of the review.
    • Ensure the data is collected, recorded, and stored in a way that protects participant’s anonymity and confidentiality. 
  • Decide in advance how will you analyse and synthesise the interviews data.  Thinking these issues through in advance will help ensure that the patterns, dynamics and causal factors are readily apparent when it comes time to conduct this part of the review process. It will also help clarify how the data should be recorded and assist with ensuring consistency and efficiency if there is more than one interviewer involved.  Most importantly, it will help guard against any unconscious bias or confirmation bias from the interviewer.
  • Plan how will you report on the insights you have discovered.  Will there be a report, or maybe a presentation?  Who will have access to it?  How will actions arising be developed and prioritised?  Being clear about these things upfront and being transparent with participants about these decisions before the interviews begin, will assist in ensuring that staff buy in to the outcomes of the process.

How ever you go about conducting a workplace review, and whatever choices you make along the way, the most important thing is to be transparent with the team about the reasons for the review, how it will be conducted, and what will happen with the results!

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