Blue Beyond Consulting

Cultural Assessments 101: Why, When, and How To Execute

Evaluating culture isn’t something organizations can afford to put on the back burner. In their Job Seeker Nation Report, Jobvite found that 55% of workers would leave a new job if the culture did not align with their expectations and values.

So, how does an organization get to know the state of its culture? In many organizations, measurement comes down to some version of an all-company employee survey. Retention and hiring rates may also be informative. And, of course, there are those stories — whether feedback or praise — that make it to the ears of the people sitting in the C-suite. But none of these approaches is comprehensive. If these are your current methods, you’re likely missing important opportunities to raise your culture game and reap the business benefits.

As a result of our work with countless organizations across industries, we know how to use assessments and tactical interventions to create better cultures. Let’s discuss what makes for a comprehensive cultural assessment and how organizations can get the most value and action from the process.


What Is a Cultural Assessment?

A cultural assessment is a formal process that helps your organization better define the current state of your culture and look for areas of improvement. A well-executed cultural assessment should tease out what the company’s culture is, what everyone wants it to be in service of moving the organization forward, and where there are gaps. In the Blue Beyond process, this comes down to answers in three fundamental areas:

  • Who are we when we are at our best?
  • Who are we when we’re at our worst?
  • What should our future look like? Who do we want to be?
  • What do we need to do, perhaps differently, to get there?

Because culture so often can feel ambiguous or difficult to capture, culture assessments are also a tool to better articulate culture and make it tangible, including how leaders, managers, and employees view the current-state culture, what an aspirational, future-state might look like, and how you’ll need to adjust to fully realize this vision. It’s an opportunity to capture a point in time and the context (be it market context, leadership context, strategy context, etc.) that encompasses the business.

Four colleagues deeply brainstorm and discuss their work in a conference room

Why Do a Cultural Assessment?

A cultural assessment provides an objective view of something that’s nebulous and hard to see when you’re close to it. Some leaders may assume that what they’re hearing in bits and pieces is, in fact, reflective of the culture at large, but it’s hard to tell when you’re not hearing from all the voices. More importantly, what leaders do hear could point directly to the problem areas, but there’s a good chance that the issues raised are symptoms of the greater root causes that can’t be fixed without further inspection. In other words, it’s a pulse check on how all your people are feeling — not just a select few.

An assessment also helps organizations identify the causes of culture issues. What leaders hear could point directly to the problem areas, but there’s a good chance that the issues raised are symptoms of deep-seated, systemic troubles that can’t be fixed without further inspection. Being aware of these root causes necessarily means you can uncover what you’re already doing well — and why — so that you can maintain these practices and build resilience.

It’s a common misconception to see a cultural assessment as merely something people teams and leaders feel is the “right thing to do.” When used to its full potential, a cultural assessment is fundamentally about discovering and learning what the organization as a whole must either continue to do or change to execute on strategy, fulfill its purpose, and deliver on promises to employees.

A cohort of coworkers sits in a classroom-like environment. Several employees are contributing to the conversation by raising their hands, while others take notes.

How To Do a Cultural Assessment

Just as there are many ways to define culture, there are different methods for conducting a cultural assessment. If you’re considering undertaking one in your organization, here’s our advice for getting the most out of the process.

Building and Sustaining a Deep Trust, High Expectations Culture™

Download our free interactive assessment tool


1. Look at Processes in Tandem with Behaviors

First, it’s important to look at processes along with employee behaviors, as neither can be separated from the other. Processes may not feel very “cultural,” but they can often be quite telling — especially when drawn against your people’s norms and behaviors.

Let’s look at an example. Suppose the company says: ‘We empower people,’ but then there’s a process such as a spending limit for upper management. That process might create a feeling around it that isn’t empowering. An assessment should be informed by and ask questions about these kinds of dynamics.

2. Gather Feedback That’s Both Deep and Broad

An all-company survey may allow you to get information from everyone who works in the organization, but it isn’t the best forum for employee expression. Blue Beyond conducts focus group sessions to dig deep into key issues, giving employees the time and space to speak freely about culture. Focus groups – which should always include people from all levels of the company – can then be followed by an all-company survey, which will allow you to pressure-test some of the information you’ve learned in the focus groups. It also ensures that every employee has a chance to have their voice heard.

3. Make Sure the Assessment Is Designed for You

No two companies are alike, no two cultures are alike, and no two assessments should be alike. An effective cultural assessment begins with understanding your organization’s goals and vision. Culture is such an enabling factor to reach a company’s goals, whether that’s profit, less turnover, new talent, innovation, a revamped employee value proposition, and more. And while best practices and methodologies may hold firm, they should also be amended to accommodate your specific goals.

4. Engage Leadership, Not Just HR

Nurturing culture feels like it belongs in the hands of HR, but when it’s implemented well, it moves beyond that realm. As we say, culture is not an HR thing — it’s a business thing. We increasingly see our clients looking to make their cultures not only an enabler in their business strategy but a driver to reach goals. The more you are able to engage the leadership team, the more you will garner leadership buy-in across departments and keep culture a priority.

5. Choose the Right Time

Cultural assessments are often most useful in and around periods of change. The reasons to do an assessment can be proactive or reactive – both are valid strategies. A business might be proactive and say: “We have foresight, but let’s do an assessment to see where we are and use culture to help us get there.” But it’s also the case that an organization will evaluate its culture after evaluating retention rates, exit interviews, and employer review platforms.

Organizational shifts on the horizon are another signal that a cultural assessment may be in order, such as a change in leadership. These are natural inflection points where you are likely already thinking about where you are heading in the future, and an assessment can help you align your culture to this vision and the employee experience.

External change can also trigger the need for a culture assessment. Right now, for example, with the battle for talent, the changing priorities of the next generation of employees, and increasing competition across verticals, an assessment can help you rethink what you need to keep your business moving forward.

6. Be Ready for Next Steps

A cultural assessment is just the first step in an ongoing process. After the assessment comes recommendations and a plan of action that gives employees something tangible right away.

It’s important to recognize that culture change takes time. Depending on where you are and where you’re looking to go, it could take years to get there. But even with a long-term goal, your employees should begin seeing change quickly. That might mean immediately implementing a recognition program or forming a special team around one of your goals. Your action plan should be specific to the findings of your assessment and your goals.

Follow-up should also be part of the tactical plan. Pulse surveys at regular intervals can help measure progress toward goals, in between doing your next full-scale assessment.

7. Consider a Consultant

Culture is complicated, and the results from an assessment can be a lot to digest. When there is so much to uncover and do with your findings, a consultant can be an invaluable resource to unpack what matters most and observe the results as a neutral and objective third party.

Culture consultants can also shepherd organizations to the change they want and reduce overwhelm by breaking down the big picture into actionable items. That means you and your employees can find quick wins that drive real impact.

Building and Sustaining a Deep Trust, High Expectations Culture™

Download our free interactive assessment tool


A trio of employees applaud and cheer a recent business success

Healthy Culture, Healthy Business

Imagine showing up for your annual medical physical. The doctor steps in, takes your blood pressure, pronounces you healthy, and says, “See you next year.” That’s not much of an assessment of your total health. What about your heart rate? Your moods? Should you be exercising more?

So it is with organizational health. Looking at individual factors like profitability, spending, and employee retention will only tell you so much. Cultural assessments add an important dimension to the overall picture of the organization, helping to identify problem areas, spotlight what’s going well, and set goals for the future. The right assessment, conducted at the right time and with the right support, can establish important benchmarks for steady progress toward the goals that matter most to your organization.

Ready to check your culture's pulse?