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Diagnosis: Creating and Administering a Cultural Health Survey

The first step toward a healthy workplace culture is diagnosis, which can be done by conducting a Cultural Health Survey. I am not going to walk you through exactly how to create your own Cultural Health Survey because there are so many different, practical ways that it can work. You could send a text message or an email with the right questions. You could use a form like Google Surveys, Survey Monkey, or WuFoo. You could do a Facebook poll if that’s the way that is easiest for you to communicate with your people. However, an anonymous survey is always going to get you better information than one that requires employees to identify themselves with their answers.

We often spend a lot of time wanting our communications to look good, but that makes no difference if you don’t know what information you are looking for and what information you don’t want to know.

Traditional employee surveys take about four forms: health surveys, engagement surveys, violence surveys, and safety surveys. Each of these formats has benefits. For example, the questions about positive reinforcement, transparency, challenge, and communication in the traditional engagement surveys can give a company great information about whether an employee is likely to stay in her position. Questions about whether on-the-floor employees observe any hazards and have equipment necessary to do their jobs can give important information about immediate dangers in the workplace.

We are still navigating how to ask employees about cultural hazards though, and many surveys have shown to be very ineffective in asking the right questions. For example, health surveys tend to ask employees questions like, “How often do you exercise?” and “Do you smoke?” These are not bad questions on their face, but they do put the employee on the defensive and tend to sound like, “Are you trying hard enough? Are you a broken piece of equipment?” More importantly, though, they do not ask questions about the cultural experience of the workplace, only the physical health of the employee.

Worse, violence surveys ask questions like, “Have you experienced sexual harassment at work?” Again, this question is not bad on its face, but it has been shown to be incredibly ineffective. The reason is that no one knows what “sexual harassment” means. When a survey asks about components of sexual harassment (e.g. “Have you been exposed to sexual images or conversation at work in a way that made you uncomfortable?” or “Have you been touched at work in a way that made you uncomfortable?”) responses have been shown to be enormously higher than with general questions about “sexual harassment.”

The first step in creating an effective Cultural Health Survey (which is just a fancy name I am using for asking your employees the right questions to get the information you want about a problem) is to decide (1) the problems you do want to find out about, and (2) the problems you do not want to find out about (if any).

If you only want to know if you are about to be sued, for example, you can phrase questions like, “Have you experienced discrimination at work?”

If you want to know whether your employees feel safe, though, it is important to be much more specific and also gentler in questions. For example, “In the past year, has anyone touched you in a way that made you uncomfortable at work?” will not tell you whether that touching qualifies for protection under discrimination law, but it will give you more information about whether your employee feels safe. You are more likely to get a higher number of “yes” responses to the second question than the first because people are reluctant to identify behavior as discriminatory until it has gotten very bad.

Here are a few questions that might help you identify what you do and do not want to know from a survey:

  • Do you want to know whether employees feel respected at work?

  • Do you want to know whether employees feel physically safe at work?

  • Do you want to know whether employees like their jobs?

  • Do you want to know whether employees feel secure in their jobs?

  • Do you want to know whether employees will stay in their jobs long term or feel

  • they have to transition to another job in order to advance their careers?

  • Do you want to know whether employees are likely to engage in discriminatory or

  • harassing behavior?

  • Do you want to know whether employees feel financially secure in their positions?

  • Do you want to know whether employees are experiencing anything that might

  • violate employment law right now?

If you don’t want to know the answers to any of these questions, the good news is you don’t have to do anything! Just keep going on as things are and don’t send out any surveys.

If you do want to know the answers to these questions, the thing to know is that it may give you something you actually need to effectively address. Even silence gives you information you may need to address. For example, if a large portion of employees with one characteristic do not respond to a survey, it is fair to take a negative response from this lack of response. These employees want to focus on work and do not want to “rock the boat” with their opinions about workplace cultural health, which are likely negative. One of the reasons most companies do not ask questions that are actually likely to get information about a company’s cultural health is that they are worried that if they know, they will have to take action to correct the problem. Many business owners view this as “too hard.” They don’t want to know about problems because they don’t want to have to do something about them.

The trouble with this thinking is that it can be much costlier and more time consuming to have high turnover and lawsuits than to correct a cultural health issue that will make employees more effective and efficient in the long term. At best, a cultural health issue can be like each of your employees having a pebble in her shoe while she works – it is distracting but manageable. At worst, it can be like your employee having a broken leg at work – it requires time off, constant management, and puts her in pain all day. Cultural health issues at work can absorb the majority of an employee’s energy, leaving very little for her work. Most of us have been through heartbreak or challenges that suck our energy from work, so we can understand how much energy it takes to deal with an emotional experience. If you have an employee who is not meeting her potential, it is important to consider that a cultural health issue could be sucking her energy away from work through no fault of her own.

In order to craft your own questions to create the answers you want, here’s a hack: Write out the answers you want to get before you write the questions. For example, if the answer you are looking for is, “One of my coworkers is super creepy and treating me differently because I’m Hispanic,” what do you need to ask to get that answer? If the answer you are looking for is, “I have a disability that is not being accommodated,” what do you need to ask in order to make sure you get that answer? The key may seem obvious, but it is that you have to ask a question that opens the door to those answers and allows them to be acceptable.

In the Cultural Health Survey I offer to employers, I use a Likert scale (meaning a scale that allows employees to respond with a range of one to four with one meaning “not at all like me” and four meaning “very like me”) and I allow employees to respond to prompts like, “My race is respected at work” or “My gender is respected at work” to elicit direct answers about discrimination issues. I also allow them to respond to prompts like, “I love the people I work with,” “I am uncomfortable around people at work,” or “I know how to stop inappropriate behavior at work.” I evaluate each of these scores and graph them so that an employer knows where employees are having an overall positive or overall negative experience at work, but also where there are targeted red-flag issues that may be an indicator of illegal discrimination. In every survey I have conducted so far, there have been a range of responses and a handful of employees who fall within a crisis level of response. There have also been a portion of employees who have not responded, indicating more room to create a safe space to talk about cultural health issues and prioritize those discussions.

Many lawyers may advise you to avoid asking questions that are going to get you those answers. This is because if you find out there is a problem and you don’t effectively respond to it, your situation becomes way worse. This is good advice, and if you have an attorney, you should listen to your attorney.

But the tough thing is that if you want to have a culturally healthy workplace, you need to know about problems before they become intolerable. Because you’re reading this, my guess is that you are willing to do what it takes to create cultural health, even if it’s hard. If you are ready to start healing cultural wounds in your workplace, you have to be willing to hear that they are there. There is no other way to heal them. Ignoring them does not make them go away. At the same time, you don’t want to force employees to respond to these questions, which can also be abusive. The diagnosis portion is really to help you understand the problems employees are willing to voluntarily report and how many of your employees are not willing to report problems at all.

If you decide you are ready to really diagnose whether problems exist, the next decision you have to make is whether you want to develop your survey on your own or whether you want help. Either way, make sure your survey covers all characteristics protected by law and send it to all employees. Even if your workplace is racially homogenous (for example, all black), still ask questions that will get you information about whether people feel discriminated based on race and still send it to all employees. Even if your workplace is all women, still ask questions that will get you information about gender discrimination and send it to everyone, including yourself. Ask questions about all protected characteristics and send it to all people because if you exclude one, and there actually happens to be a problem related to that characteristic that you would never have thought of, leaving it out can make the problem even worse.


This is a selection from The Inclusive Leader's Guide to Healthy Workplace Culture. For a free copy of the book, visit Or you can purchase online via Amazon.

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