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Perspectives Blog

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Good research question: "What are your company’s official and unofficial-but-agreed-upon policies? What are the unspoken rules?"

Deepen your understanding of the local and larger currents that affect how your participants think and behave.

Work-life takes place on a bed of shared agreements. Your work is directed and constrained by your company’s policies and culture. Your research subjects are also being influenced in stark and subtle ways by their work environment.

You could devote a full interview to the statements below:

In our company, it’s the policy to…

In our company, it’s popular, but not policy to… 

In our company, it’s acceptable to do X, but it’s a bit ‘out there’ … 

In our company, it would be radical to suggest Y…

Those statements and the questions that bring them up are valuable because they reveal “how things are being done today” whether that’s the official or unofficial policy. Figuring out what questions will reveal “how things are done” requires a deeper understanding of how policies, SOPs, cultures, etc are created. One framework to use is the ‘Overton Window.’ 

The Overton Window was developed by Joseph Overton, a public policy thinker who studied how particular policies (laws and regulations) are suggested, debated, and enacted into laws. The Overton Window framework says that policies that are widely accepted by the culture at large wouldn’t come as a shock to a member of the general public or those that sit within the Overton Window. These are the policies that politicians feel comfortable pursuing and supporting. Policies that are outside the realm of what would be considered acceptable to their constituents fall outside the Overton Window. The formulation of the Overton Window is valuable in policy thinking, but also applies to society as a whole.

For qualitative research, it can be valuable to capture the local cultural currents at play, in addition to individual preferences and views. Those local (or even larger) currents affect how your research participant thinks and behaves. 

If we consider a company like a political and/or cultural microcosm, then there are similarities to the Overton Window. Therefore, asking about policies can be a great way into the conversation. Many workplaces have defined and written policies, so you can ask to see the policy itself. And companies implement practices, tools, and process steps in order to ensure compliance with their policy. Those will be visible and available for inspection and conversation too. For example, spending more than $1,000 may require manager approval, and the request form, slip, or formal emails that move through the company for purchases can be a jumping off point. 

Let’s not make the mistake of assuming that all policies are written. Much of an organization’s behavior is influenced and constrained, but unwritten. 

Some of these influences can be:

Outside regulators - outside regulators especially in healthcare, insurance, financial services. There are many rules and regulations from all of these institutions that require conforming to them for fear of losing benefits.

Company Vibe - The personalities of a company (especially from persons in management) can create a certain vibe that might not be policy, but that definitely impacts how people behave. While this atmosphere is felt more than spoken about, it is there all the same. Generally the source of this atmosphere is from one influential person. Their influence can come from a “leadership-like” personality or from an actual position of authority, especially if they’re paying the bills or cutting checks. This influence spans the spectrum from positive to negative and while it can be neutral, we see it more on the ends of the spectrum. 

Human Nature - We all do things we should probably not do. People might not want to admit they don’t always follow the policy or do what’s culturally accepted. This might be the hardest category of information to uncover.


We all know that ‘real life’ can intrude on the process. Asking people where, why, and how they deviate from the SOP (standard operating procedure)  will rarely get you a truthful answer - it’s too personal. “Why don’t you follow the rules?” isn’t going to get you the answer you’re looking for. Focus your questions instead on where the SOP is breaking down or causing harm. 

Where are some times when things don’t go according to plan? 

What if there’s an exception?

And of course there are innocuous breaks in policy. An example of this is sending a Friday status report at 5:30 PM on a Friday evening which will make it far less likely to spark a flurry of conversation than the same report sent at 10:30 AM.

What someone will admit to doing outside the written or unspoken policies depends on many factors. The answer will depend considerably on your participants' trust of the researchers and the research objective. At Helpfully, our researchers find asking about unwritten policies towards the end of a shadowing / contextual inquiry session is the best way to go about it. 

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