I wonder how many companies have the courage to do internal social audits. In other words, how many really want to know how their employees feel about their jobs, bosses, compensation levels and a host of other matters that can be very touchy subjects. But there's no question social audits can be illuminating and beneficial.
Ben & Jerry's, the renowned ice cream company based in South Burlington, Vt., is a good example of lessons that can be learned. Its 1995 social audit brought some provocative findings. This all came to light in an article in a recent issue of Business Ethics, published by Mavis Publications in Minneapolis. For instance, "Morale at Ben & Jerry's was generally thought by (employee focus group) participants to be lower at the end of 1995 than at the beginning." Other findings involved the proportion of employees who believe the company "really practices what it preaches"-only 46%-while overall employee satisfaction was 80%. Ben & Jerry's franchisees also seemed puzzled about how decisions got made at the company. Only 13% said they understood the process. All interesting stuff, which shows a lot can be learned from such audits. But it takes a lot of guts on the part of management to go forward with such a project. According to the article, however, Liz Bankowski, a Ben & Jerry's board member and a senior executive in charge of social mission development, sees a couple of basic reasons for conducting social audits. First, she believes it's simply management's responsibility to do it. Second, it's extremely practical. As she explains: "It's helped us set an agenda. That's what an audit has to do. You don't do an audit and put it on the shelf, or say oh isn't that nice."
In the article, Bankowski explains how the company's managers acted on many of the findings. For instance: "It raised awareness that the company needed more professional management. Another audit showed we hadn't sufficiently built ownership among employees, so we started an across-the-board stock-option award. . . .(The audit) starts as something you do out there-but the evolution is it helps run the business. It gets information shared. It helps you know the actionable items." In short, instead of management believing their own PR, they get an accurate measurement of how employees in the trenches see things. That itself is worth the price of admission.
Sure, a lot of companies are not as socially progressive as Ben & Jerry's, but it makes good sense that executives would want to know their employees' opinions on crucial operational issues. Maybe there are things that can be done to make the workplace more pleasant, improving morale and productivity at the same time. The possibilities are endless. Ben & Jerry's has been doing this sort of auditing for eight years, and it's apparently paid off handsomely.
While we look at the idea of social auditing, why not take it a step further and query customers on their attitudes? Have an independent contractor conduct the audit so there's no chance of skewing the results. Business could be booming, but your customers might not be quite as pleased with your products and services as you think they are. You might find out there's trouble brewing in the not-too-distant future. A little effort now could save a lot of heartache in the future.
Taking stock of your organization, whether it's with colleagues or customers, is an intelligent thing to do. Too many companies won't go through the trouble because they might be embarrassed by the results. Big egos are involved, which often makes for rose-colored assessments that have little to do with reality. Take the risk and seek the truth. It might be the wisest business decision you ever make.
Charles S. Lauer