The World of Work Project

Culture Washing

Similar to green-washing, which conveys a misleading impression of a product or organization being environmentally sound, culture washing is at play in organizations claiming a healthy and dynamic culture that fosters growth, values candor and champions integrity – or any other set of virtues – when the truth, at best, is far less rosy, and at worst, harmful and toxic.

Summary by Lisa Schmidt, for The World of Work Project

Culture Washing

While a relatively new term, culture washing is likely as old as the first framed value statement in a company’s boardroom. Similar to green-washing, which conveys a misleading impression of a product or organization being environmentally sound, culture washing is at play in organizations claiming a healthy and dynamic culture that fosters growth, values candor and champions integrity – or any other set of virtues – when the truth, at best, is far less rosy, and at worst, harmful and toxic.

Common examples include organizations that claim to promote creativity and experimentation yet blame or fire people who fail to yield hoped-for results when trying unproven approaches, or those workplaces where respect is championed as a core element of the culture, all the while allowing bullying and discrimination to run unchecked.

Washing and cleaning changes our perceptions of things.

Why Culture Washing is Important

There are numerous consequences to culture washing. Most common is cynicism on behalf of employees as they experience a disconnect between espoused values and what is tolerated and/or rewarded. Lowered rates of retention and higher turnover are another outcome, a result of promises made in the recruitment and on-boarding phases that belie a deceptive bait-and-switch maneuver at what was supposed to be the start of a healthy professional relationship.

Finally there is reputational risk as word gets out through platforms such as Glassdoor where reviews of organizations are posted for all to see.

Beyond these effects is the deep sense of personal betrayal employees feel when they are repeatedly told “our values matter” only to experience profound misalignment. Resonance with organizational values is often why candidates pick one organization over another: values serve as the touchstone for all organizational policies and programs, and they underpin the culture needed to achieve strategy – a strategy employees have signed up to deliver on. In fact, an organization’s culture is fundamentally an aggregate of employee behavior, profoundly shaped by the collective behaviors of its leaders. When leaders pay only lip service to the values, they are essentially inviting employees to flout them as well.

Why and how does Culture Washing Take Place?

Given the fallout from culture washing, why would organizations put themselves at such risk?

One possible reason is creating a positive impression in the eye of the public, particularly to enhance brand value in the eyes of consumers. Also, in a tight labor market, “looking good on paper” is one way to enhance appeal towards talented job searchers. There additionally may be external regulators and accreditation bodies to appease. And as a side note, unbeknownst to most people, organizations pay to be on lists of top 100 employers. Their communications and HR departments fill in forms detailing the organization’s culture, education reimbursements and EAP (Employee Assistance Program) among other things, and are “awarded” these accolades from industry groups with little idea of what it is actually like to work in these places.

Not all organizations are what they are pretending to be…

Not surprisingly, in the era of anonymous online reviews and the prevalence of social media platforms, where opinion often parades as fact, some organizations pay their employees to reinforce a positive narrative of their organizational culture by rewarding employees who offer glowing reviews. Of note is Amazon, in 2019, offering financial recompense to some employees for tweeting positively about their experiences at work.

Organizations that get their internal culture ‘right’ are most likely to invest in nurturing effective leaders and to align behavior at all levels with an explicit set of values. To feign a strong and vibrant culture, while the one that actually exists is utterly different from the one put forward is, undoubtedly, little other than deceit.

The World of Work Project View

While a key driver of working is a paycheck, employees also want to be paid in a variety of other “currencies,” one of which is the meaning and purpose they gain by contributing to an organization that walks the talk – a talk they identify with and believe in. It is no wonder the vast majority of profitable organizations focus equally on their internal culture as they do on their mission and strategy: the numbers, in terms of turnover, lost profits and replacement costs make a compelling business case for a values-aligned culture.

In the end, though, the cost is far greater than all these losses combined: organizations will pay not only in employee disengagement, they will also lose the most priceless thing any company can have – trust – as those same employees are likely to not believe much of anything else they are told and, for better or worse, will behave accordingly.

Sources and further reading

Where possible we always recommend that people read up on the original sources of information and ideas.

The concepts behind this post is based on general reading and research, as well as on conversations with professionals working in organizational culture development. There are no specific references for it.

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About the Author

LISA SCHMIDT, M.Ed. ACPC, is a seasoned speaker and organizational development consultant. She helps executives and organizations speak truth and act with courage in developing compelling and powerful strategies, along with the roadmaps to get there.

Lisa Schmidt

More than a coach and facilitator, Lisa is a thinking partner who leverages her experience with iconic organizations such as the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the Hospital for Sick Children and Atomic Energy of Canada – and internationally with the Mastercard Foundation – to shift organizations from a focus on results and success, to one of impact, legacy and significance.

A former speechwriter credited with writing “the Million Dollar speech” for a hospital fundraising campaign, and the recipient of Canadian Council literary funding, she understands how language is critical to leadership, and helps leaders hone their ability to inspire and build their legacy.

To contact or read more about her, visit www.lisaschmidt.ca.

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