I must admit, I thought I was terribly clever when I thought of ‘culture washing’ and how it was going to be a new and exciting term to discuss in this blog. I was quick to eat humble pie, when I googled it and found it to already be a known and widely used phenomenon. Oh how I LOL’d at my misguided attempt to provide nuanced food for thought.
Despite ‘Culture washing’ already being a thing it’s worthy of reflecting on how it affects a company’s social licence. Like ‘Greenwashing’ the lack of integrity behind the claims is where the risk lies. Spouting off company values and aspirational goals or a vision to trap prospective employees in your fly trap is at best short sighted and at worst deceitful. The sales pitch of a ‘fun, safe and empowering place to work’ will get people through the door, but they will be quick to see through the superficial gloss as the vibe of the office makes itself known.
The outcome? Disappointment, toxic work culture and a high staff turnover. Word of mouth will then flow and disrupt the culture washing bandwagon, with a dilution of job applicants down the line. The lack of trust that comes from this is the beginning of your social licence break down. It starts with the former scenario where you lose buy-in from stakeholders and spend more and more resources on recruitment, but can build to negative media attention due to whistle blowers and/or inquiries into conduct. The microscope will hone in on your operation and can invite further exposure and reputational harm.
So what to do instead?
I love the saying ‘stop drinking the kool-aid. In regards to culture washing it means don’t let yourself be blinded by a ‘never say die’ type hype where the culture is wrapped up in a delusion that the company can do no wrong and everybody else are idiots. Or the pseudo humble business that is ok with accountability and checking itself until it's challenged or criticised (it’s easy to be humble when things are going well). So check your Kool-aid for a followership, never-say-die, pseudo-humble or dictator-like culture, then hold a mirror up to it. Culture washing can only be changed from within if there are those brave enough to stand out from the crowd.
Funny that, as earning your social licence requires a high level of vulnerability and bravery too.