Should Companies Do Culture Surveys before their employees do?

An Employee-Created Survey led to executive departures at Nike—Should Companies Do Culture Surveys before their employees do?

We think the answer is yes, if they want to avoid some pretty big costs.

Background:  The #MeToo movement is empowering women to stand up.  It’s encouraging women to reexamine what they are willing to tolerate in the workplace, and it’s teaching them they may need to work outside of the human resources department if they want to see results.  A group of women at Nike are a prime example.  They created their own workplace culture survey, which asked if respondents had experienced sexual harassment or gender discrimination at Nike.  The results were provided to the CEO, and the executive departures have been on-going.

You’ve seen comments about the #MeToo movement, describing it as a “witch hunt” or having “gone too far.”  But it’s just a reaction to frustration—frustration that other avenues have failed women.  Amanda Shebiel, a former Nike employee summed it up when interviewed by the New York Times:  “Why did it take an anonymous survey to make change?” she asked. “Many of my peers and I reported incidences and a culture that were uncomfortable, disturbing, threatening, unfair, gender-biased and sexist — hoping that something would change that would make us believe in Nike again.”   “No one went just to complain,” Ms. Shebiel added. “We went to make it better.”

They just wanted to make it better.  That’s what most women who experience unprofessional conduct directed toward them in the workplace want.   But many of the systems in place are failing them, and most companies aren’t proactively analyzing their workplace cultures.

New Systems Needed, Including Company Culture Surveys:

If Nike had conducted the survey before these women did, what might be different? 

1.      There wouldn’t be survey results saying that illegal conduct took place.  The informal survey conducted by the women at Nike used words that traditionally carry legal definitions and legal liability, “harassment” and “discrimination.”  A company survey could have avoided terms with legal definitions and still discovered the problems with their workplace culture. 

2.      Nike could have acted proactively and taken action in response to its own survey.  A company culture survey done regularly and sincerely can find unprofessional conduct before it rises to the level of being illegal.  It can be discovered and addressed when it has a chance to be fixed without high level terminations, without bad press, and without expensive litigation.

3.      Nike might not have lost a lot of talented women and be trying to play catch up in the women’s athletic apparel market. 

That’s the biggest cost—the loss of talented women in the workplace and corresponding loss in creative development.  As I have become more involved with women entrepreneur groups, I’ve been surprised to discover how many women have a story to tell that sounds like the ones being told by women at Nike.  Many of the women entrepreneurs I’ve met have responded to such work environments by giving up on trying to change them, concluding they can start their own companies and do it better.  They’ve decided they can use their talents, create their own success, and build companies with workplace cultures that engage and promote not just women, but everyone, fairly.  Even more interesting, I’ve noticed the number of women starting their own businesses immediately upon completion of their higher education.  They are choosing to entirely bypass male-dominated environments at the very beginning of their careers, depriving established companies of some of the most talented and driven young people.

The old model was of women working hard, tolerating and persisting through unprofessional conduct directed toward them, succeeding in companies in spite of being women, and then expecting other women to handle it all exactly like they did.  While we are grateful for the women who came before, there is a new model now.  Women who have been through it are no longer saying, “That’s the way it is; get through it like I did.”  Instead, they’re saying, “This isn’t the way it should be and I’m going to help change it for the women coming after me.”  More and more women networking groups are developing, not as places to vent about what it’s like at their jobs, but as places where women can find mentors and often find funding to build their own businesses. 

While the model is changing, established companies still have a chance to attract talent if they boldly examine their company cultures and take action to raise the level of professionalism for all in their workplaces.  Let us know what you think.