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Workplace culture washing - and what to do about it.

By Jane Sunley - Hendrick and Hyde

A group of employees clapping a corporate presentation

You’ll be familiar with the terms ‘green washing’ and ‘pink washing’ (think FIFA’s highly polluting ‘carbon-neutral’ World Cup, or the M&S LGBT sandwich; a regular BLT, enhanced with a bit of gay guacamole), though culture washing in the workplace is a topic that also requires your attention. 


What it is

Workplace culture washing is where an organisation claims to have strong and positive culture, yet the reality is far from the truth. As an example, having ‘innovation’ as a value where people are blamed (or fired) for trying new ideas that fail.  Or ‘integrity’ as a value in a workplace where corner cutting and unfairness go unchecked.


How it goes wrong

This is rarely maliciously concocted. Often, either the marketing department come up with internal culture statements as part of an overall brand exercise, which is then presented, and everyone’s expected to follow it. Posters on the wall and a glitzy roadshow follow and, hey presto, it’s happening. Except it isn’t. Alternatively, it’s a well thought out collaborative exercise (usually) led by HR, which fails to land because it’s not correctly embedded and the senior leadership team aren’t fully bought in.


Dire consequences

At best, people are aware and try their best, though the messages aren’t translating in to the right behaviours, and so credibility is lost. At worst, culture washing leads to toxicity.  It can lead to employee cynicism and mistrust, damaged credibility, counterproductivity, employee disengagement and disconnect. It carries severe reputational risk, leads to poor employee retention and adversely affects an organisations’ ability to attract good people.


What to do about it

  1. Investigate what people believe the organisation to be and what it is not.

  2. Bin lengthy visions and missions that no one can remember, in favour of a short, punchy and memorable purpose statement.

  3. Decide on values that are relevant, authentic and clear.

  4. Then define the behaviours that will support (2) and (3).

  5. Work out a plan to ensure your cultural definitions ring true and are reinforced across all parts of the employee experience.

  6. Ensure that every leader and every level is ready, willing and able to role model your cultural definitions every day.

  7. Measure the outcomes, especially your Employer Net Promoter (employee advocacy) score.


The benefits

This looks simple though is far from easy; getting it right takes skill, determination and dedication yet the rewards are great. You can win the talent war by becoming an employer of choice with loyal and engaged people who sing your praises from the rooftops, and you can spread the word to a wider talent pool by winning prestigious awards, such as Best Workplaces in Travel and Best Employers in Hospitality. In a job seekers’ market, that’s a very big deal indeed.


If you need help

You’re ideally only going to do this once, so it makes sense to enlist people who have the right experience and expertise to make sure you get it right first time. You know where we are.

Hendrick & Hyde offer practical, results-focused support for organisations aspiring to attract, engage and retain great people.


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