Among an organization's key assets, perhaps none is more valuable than the culture that permeates it from top to bottom. In the words of management consultant and author Peter Drucker, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast," meaning that even a great strategic plan will likely fail if the organization's mindset and workforce don't align with it.
culture, as it applies to organizations, refers to the attitudes and workplace behaviors that drive customer and employee relations, the quality of goods and services, and profitability. Recognition of business culture as a legitimate balance sheet line item under U.S. generally accepted accounting principles underscores that effective culture is a bottom-line essential, not a fuzzy nice-to-have. In fact, a business' culture may carry a book value — in the form of goodwill — higher than any other asset on the balance sheet.
Culture impacts nearly every aspect of an organization, including morale, productivity, and achievement of goals, making it an essential area for internal audit to examine. An FAQ on culture, assembled from years of questions received from audit committees and stakeholders, can serve as a primer on the topic and help guide internal auditors planning to conduct a cultural assessment.
1. How is culture formed?
An organization's expressed desire to create an employee- and customer-centric, sustainable enterprise represents nothing more than a wish unless actively supported by the incentives, policies and procedures, and goals established by management. Some of the factors that shape a culture for good or bad include:
- Employee workloads.
- Spans of authority.
- Management style.
- Ethics policies.
- Organizational values.
- Relevance and frequency of training.
- Recruitment and retention practices.
- Criteria for employee advancement.
- Compensation plans.
- Personnel policies, including work-hour flexibility and remote-work options.
- Quality controls over products and services.
- Return policies and product warranties.
An organization's culture is impossible to conceal because it can be observed almost everywhere. It shows, for example, in the level of respect and teamwork among staff members and in the physical work environment. Culture is quantifiable through productivity metrics and by examining compliance with both the letter and spirit of rules and regulations. Moreover, culture is evident in employee turnover rates, and it is undeniably reflected in the organization's success with retaining repeat customers and garnering their recommendations.
Culture is profoundly important to an organization's well-being and competitive viability. The factors associated with a healthy or an unhealthy culture are the same ingredients that determine the quality of goods and services it produces, which in turn affect its very survival.
2. Why assess culture?
Every organization will experience some "sway" or "drift" between its desired state and actual behavior. With that in mind, internal auditors should help gauge whether management and staff are acting on values the organization purports to uphold. And while all the components of a culture may support desired attitudes and behaviors at a point in time, they must be continually assessed for relevance and competitiveness for each generation of employee and customer. What's more, some managers do a better job embracing desired values and instilling them among staff than others. Periodic assessments can identify rogue or ineffective managers — hopefully before they inflict any long-term damage.
Many governing bodies, C-suite executives, and audit committees recognize culture's impact on these and other key organizational factors, including productivity, product and service quality, and the retention and attraction of customers. No company is successful for long by sheer accident and happenstance. Long-term success is achieved only by design and intent that is translated into the tangibles found in organizational culture.
3. What are the vital signs of a healthy culture?
The definition of a healthy culture is the same for both the private and public sectors. Health is measured by the degree an organization can sustainably retain committed and capable employees to provide cost-effective, competitive goods or services that are timely and responsive to customers' needs. A sick culture fails in one or more of these critical areas.
Organizational commitment to the integrity of business processes and true customer-centric services are readily apparent, as they permeate every aspect of the operation — from responsiveness to requested information and the usefulness of procedural manuals to workplace civility and the inclusiveness of staff in decision-making. Nonetheless, the presence of these elements does not necessarily indicate a healthy or well-functioning organization — many other factors must be considered.
As such, auditors have found that below-market compensation, poorly structured workflows, unreasonable spans of authority, unrealistic production goals, shortcuts that compromise product and service quality, and absent management are among signs of a dysfunctional culture. Avoiding these deficiencies requires a deliberate commitment from management — one that reverberates throughout the organization.
4. What does an assessment of culture involve?
The typical assessment includes soliciting employees' opinions on the degree the organization lives up to its desired cultural values. This information is usually obtained through surveys and personal interviews, and through an examination of pertinent policies and procedures — including codes of conduct, compensation policies, and promotional criteria.
The finished report typically presents:
- The areas assessed.
- Employee demographics.
- The documents, policies, and procedures examined.
- Responses to each survey question, along with a summary of written comments consolidated into common categories.
- A blank copy of the survey questionnaire.
Survey reports also frequently include recommendations to address any shortcomings noted. Most assessments are completed within two months.
5. Will the assessors rank the culture's various components?
The typical assessment scales comments provided in an interview or survey. Most often, respondents are asked to rank their opinion along a continuum between "strongly disagree" and "strongly agree," or through a similar rating system.
Questions regarding the status of an organization's or subunit's culture are typically grouped into five or more major categories that address values that the board views as its desired corporate identity or personality. These can include innovation, leadership, vision and purpose, collaboration, customer focus, governance and accountability, organizational functionality, adaptability and flexibility, and employee relations. Results commonly present the number of respondents for each of the rankings on the scale, as well as an overall average for each question and category. Survey instruments that enable the reader to gauge the rankings by level of employee, length of service, and gender can be helpful in addressing training, staffing, and funding needs.
Survey results often show that both the executive level and management believe company policies and practices are more closely aligned with the company's desired values than the employees rank it to be. Such insights are essential to stop the "cultural drift" that typically occurs over time.
6. Will management get to preview the questions and provide a response?
Cultural assessments should be a collaborative effort that involves management and staff throughout the engagement. Both perspectives are critical in identifying the questions to be asked of survey participants. To succeed, assessments must receive buy-in from everyone involved, which may involve obtaining their perspectives in a written response attached to the report.
7. How can auditors prevent assessments from devolving into a complaint session?
Culture assessments typically are designed to avoid being hijacked by a small minority of disgruntled employees. Internal auditors should survey a large population that includes a representative cross-section of positions, salary ranges, operating units, ages, and experience levels, as well as both new and veteran employees. All respondents should provide demographic information, kept anonymous by the assessors, via a dedicated section in the survey instrument. Obtaining this information helps management better assess the validity of the responses.
8. Can fiscal, compliance, control, and performance audits be considered audits of culture?
All audits are increasingly viewed as a cultural assessment, but only within the narrow bandwidth of the audit's scope. Many managers and auditors view reports from these audits as an implicit assessment of attitudes and commitment toward assigned duties in light of the organization's values and mission. When performing reviews, auditors may also survey and interview employees from the audited activity as a means of determining whether prevalent attitudes and behaviors reflect the desired culture.
9. Should the hotline or whistleblower program be assessed?
Whether or not an organization supports and protects those who speak up when they see suspected misconduct is a critical reflection of its tone at the top. The support and funding for a hotline program, as well as its placement in the organizational hierarchy, sends a signal to employees about the board and CEO's commitment to ensuring integrity in every aspect of the business. Internal auditors should conduct periodic assessments to gauge employees' perceptions regarding the hotline program's value and effectiveness to ensure it continues to promote and support integrity in the workplace.
10. Why are internal auditors well-suited to assess culture?
Internal auditors are typically well-regarded and trusted as impartial and objective. Given their exposure to areas throughout the organization, auditors can regularly observe how the tone at the top impacts employees and the extent to which it shapes desired behavior. This experience gives auditors multiple and varied reference points for comparing best practices, attitudes, and expectations that mold a culture for good or bad. It also helps them offer cost-effective, practical recommendations.
Additionally, auditors are typically well-trained and experienced in assembling evidence and information that supports sound, defensible conclusions. And they are often granted unrestricted access to all personnel, books, and records, as well as cooperation from all affected parties, which removes the typical organizational turf battles and privacy concerns that can thwart other professionals seeking to conduct this type of assessment.
Getting Culture Right
Every organization has a culture that affects its daily operations, influencing nearly every decision and impacting virtually all employees. Periodic reviews of the culture have proven to foster employee trust and help keep organizations healthy and strong by alerting management to any drift from desired cultural values. When an organization gets culture right, it can make the difference between just surviving in the marketplace and thriving as an industry leader.
Ken Pun, CPA, managing partner for The Pun Group in Newport Beach, Calif., contributed to this article.