Changing the culture, one process at a time

When I tell people that culture is an outcome of processes, I often get a faint nod of understanding, mixed with an inquisitive look. They intuitively get it but they are not sure what it looks like in real life.

Let me share an example with a process that takes place in the very early stages of employee onboarding. Each month, I ask HR to give me a list of new hires. I then email each new hire and invite them to meet with me over Zoom for 15 minutes (I’ll go back to in-person meetings after the pandemic). During the meeting, I ask them to tell me a little bit about themselves, about the ethics program at their previous employer, and then I tell them about our ethics and compliance program and open it up for questions.

Why do I do it this way? Well, let’s look at the alternatives and try to guess which one can lead to a better cultural outcome.

  • Email. I could send a welcome email describing the program. This email would join dozens or hundreds of other emails, each looking more urgent and more important to this new employee who is trying to make a good first impression. My email would not tell me anything about this employee, where she comes from, what she does, or what questions she might have on her mind.
  • Phone call. That’s better than email. What’s missing is the handshake of an in-person meeting (whenever we can shake hands again), the vibes you get when you are within feet of another human being, and the employee experience of visiting your office, of knowing where you are physically located, which is often a location they will seldom have to visit.
  • Group training. This is very common in large organizations like mine. HR rounds up all the new employees, once every quarter, in a large room, for 3 hours, and shoots them with several 30-minute presentations about safety, quality, ethics, benefits, policies, etc. Here again, there would be no time for me to learn about each new employee or to answer all their questions.

There are other avenues but let’s stop here and consider: “Which of these experiences is most likely to result in an employee reaching out to you a year later when they are facing an ethical dilemma?

I sincerely believe that the employee who took the time to schedule a meeting with me, to walk to my building, to find my office on the 2nd floor, to shake my hand, to sit across my desk, to tell me about herself, and who was given the opportunity to hear about our commitment to an ethical culture and to ask questions – she is the employee that is most likely to reach out when debating what the right thing to do is. And since my job is to create a culture where employees speak up when in doubt, then I find that I have no choice but to adopt the process that will most likely create that outcome.

I have looked at only one process with you – the welcome of new employees by a chief ethics officer. There are tens of thousands of processes in your company right now. How you hire, how you compensate, how you promote, how you reward, how you treat each other – each influencing the culture. You might be responsible for a few dozens. What is the cultural outcome of each? How can you improve the outcome? Don’t know where to start? Look at a cultural outcome you dislike; link it to a process; then set about to change that process. And a cultural change will follow.

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