Employees Rank Respect as the No. 1 Aspect of Company Culture

Friday, September 17th, 2021

Feeling respected at work is what matters most to employees and is the single best predictor of a company's culture score, according to new research released in an article today in MIT Sloan Management Review.

The finding is extremely important to CEOs and CHROs, who are fighting to retain employees more than ever. Nearly 4 million Americans quit their jobs in April — the highest monthly number ever recorded by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. During this wave of resignations, culture is top of mind for many employees.

The strong language employees use to describe disrespect suggests how deeply it affects them. Employees describe being demeaned and degraded; viewed as disposable cogs in a wheel or robots; or treated like children, second-class citizens, crap, garbage, dirt, trash, scum, or idiots.

Respect for employees varied by industry. In industries with a large number of front-line employees — including casual restaurants, grocery stores, and specialty retailers — workers were more likely to talk about respect in negative terms. In sectors with a high percentage of professional and technical workers such as management consulting, enterprise software, and semiconductors, employees were less likely to mention respect but were more positive in their ratings when they did.

"Human resources and business leaders face a series of challenges while navigating the post-COVID return to work," says Donald Sull, senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and cofounder of CultureX. "Understanding the elements of culture that matter most to workers can help retain star employees and attract new recruits, especially during this huge labor shortage."

The authors report that leadership is the most frequently discussed culture topic, after respect. "Nearly half of employees (45%) mention management in their reviews, and their collective assessment of the top team is a strong predictor of a company's culture rating — four times more important than the average culture topic and twice as important [as] discussions of an employee's immediate boss."

"Employees assign more of the credit (or blame) to the C-suite, as they are responsible for several of the factors that matter most to employees' assessment of culture, including benefits, learning and development opportunities, job security, and reorganizations."

Another important predictor of a company's culture score, according to the authors, is whether managers support their employees. "Employees describe 'supportive leaders' as helping them do their work, being responsive to requests, accommodating employees' individual needs, offering encouragement, and having their backs."

"Toxic managers" are at the other end of the spectrum from supportive leaders. Employees describe them as "horrible" or "poisonous" and say they are "abusive, disrespectful, noninclusive, or unethical."

Unethical behavior is "a particularly dangerous form of toxic management. Integrity is the cornerstone of most organization's official culture: Nearly two-thirds of all companies list integrity or ethics among their official core values. Integrity also matters to employees. Ethical behavior is more than twice as predictive of a company's culture rating than the average topic. Pockets of unethical behavior, unfortunately, remain a reality in many organizations."

"Identifying toxic leaders and addressing their behavior is often the single most impactful step an organization can take to measurably improve its culture," says Charlie Sull, cofounder of CultureX. 

The MIT Sloan Management Review  (MIT SMR) article, "10 Things Your Corporate Culture Needs to Get Right," is based on a five-year, rigorous large-scale research project conducted by CultureX to measure corporate culture in top companies, using a data set of 1.4 million employee reviews on Glassdoor.

CultureX analyzed the average culture score for companies in the MIT SMR/Glassdoor Culture 500 — a sample of large organizations, mostly based in the U.S. — using cutting-edge artificial intelligence (its natural employee language understanding platform) and human expertise. To identify which factors were most important in predicting a company's overall culture score, CultureX calculated the SHAP value for each topic. SHAP values are based on a game-theoretic model developed by Nobel laureate Lloyd Shapley.