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"Carewashing": A Symptom of Cultural Misalignment

Updated: Jul 3


Drawing of two women on a beam balanced on the Yin & Yang Symbol.  The woman on the left is in a meditation pose with a window, plant, and heart behind her. The one on the right is holding a laptop with files and a clock behind her.

"Carewashing" serves as a stark illustration of the disconnect between an organization's Intended and Permitted Culture. This phenomenon occurs when a company publicly proclaims its commitment to employee well-being and care, while simultaneously allowing behaviors and norms that undermine these very principles.


On the surface, carewashing organizations may appear to prioritize employee welfare. They may tout comprehensive benefits packages, wellness initiatives, and work-life balance policies. Leaders may speak eloquently about valuing their people and fostering supportive environments. These messages form the basis of the Intended Culture - the image the company wishes to project both internally and externally.


However, the reality of the Permitted Culture often tells a different story. Despite the lofty rhetoric, carewashing organizations frequently fall short in actually implementing and enforcing practices that genuinely support employee well-being. The stated values of care and compassion are overshadowed by the tolerated norms of overwork, burnout, and disregard for personal boundaries.


For instance, a company may proudly offer unlimited paid time off as a symbol of its commitment to work-life balance. Yet, in practice, employees who attempt to take advantage of this benefit may face implicit or explicit disapproval from managers who continue to demand constant availability and unrelenting productivity. The Permitted Culture, in this case, is one that prizes presenteeism and output over actual employee well-being.


Similarly, an organization may publicly champion mental health awareness and provide resources like employee assistance programs. However, if the prevailing attitudes and behaviors within the company stigmatize vulnerability and penalize those who seek support, the intended message of care rings hollow. The Permitted Culture, shaped by the actions and inactions of leaders and peers, undermines the sincerity of the stated values.


Carewashing can also manifest in the way organizations handle instances of harassment, discrimination, or misconduct. A company may have a well-crafted policy that promises a safe and inclusive workplace. But if reports of mistreatment are met with indifference, victim-blaming, or inadequate consequences for perpetrators, it reveals a Permitted Culture that tolerates harm and betrays the professed commitment to employee well-being.


The gap between intention and reality in carewashing organizations breeds cynicism and erodes trust among employees. When the lived experience consistently contradicts the communicated image of care, it fosters a sense of betrayal and disillusionment. Employees may feel that their well-being is merely a PR strategy, not a genuine priority.


Moreover, carewashing can have profound impacts on employee mental health, engagement, and retention. When the Permitted Culture fails to live up to the promises of the Intended Culture, it creates a psychologically draining and emotionally taxing work environment. Employees may feel unsupported, undervalued, and unable to bring their whole selves to work. This dissonance can lead to increased stress, burnout, and ultimately, turnover.


To combat carewashing and align Intended and Permitted Culture, organizations must move beyond mere rhetoric and take concrete actions to embed care into their daily operations. This requires a commitment to regularly assessing the true employee experience, holding leaders accountable for modeling care-centered behaviors, and swiftly addressing any instances where the Permitted Culture diverges from the stated values.


By being intentional about ensuring the Permitted Culture to reflect principles of care - such as fostering Human Relationships, upholding Human Respect, and ensuring Human Representation - organizations can bridge the gap between aspirations and reality. They can cultivate work environments where employees genuinely feel supported, valued, and empowered to thrive.


Ultimately, the antidote to carewashing lies in the authentic and consistent practice of care. When organizations align their Intended and Permitted Culture around the holistic well-being of their people, they create the conditions for employees to flourish both personally and professionally. By confronting the dissonance head-on and committing to genuine care, companies can build trust, resilience, and shared success in the face of an ever-changing world of work.


How the 9 Principles of Employee Care Can Prevent “Carewashing”


In the quest to create workplaces where employees can truly thrive, organizations must move beyond mere lip service to well-being and commit to the authentic, consistent practice of care. This requires a deliberate effort to align the Intended Culture - the values and norms a company professes - with the Permitted Culture - the behaviors and attitudes that are actually tolerated and encouraged. The 9 Principles of Employee Care, developed by our CEO and Founder, Jessica Jaymes Purdy, offer a powerful framework for bridging this gap and embedding care into the very fabric of an organization.


Human Relationships

Fostering Authentic Connections: The principle of Human Relationships recognizes that social bonds and a sense of community are essential to employee well-being. To weave this into the Intended Culture, organizations can explicitly state the value of collaboration, teamwork, and mutual support. Leaders can model this by prioritizing regular check-ins, encouraging peer recognition, and creating spaces for informal connection.


To ensure this translates into the Permitted Culture, managers can be trained and evaluated on their ability to build psychologically safe teams where vulnerability is welcomed, and people feel genuinely seen and heard. Fostering authentic relationships can be baked into daily routines through practices like team rituals, storytelling sessions, and opportunities for cross-functional collaboration.


Human Respect

Upholding Dignity for All: Human Respect calls for a workplace where every individual is treated with dignity, and diverse perspectives are not only tolerated but celebrated. To embed this into the Intended Culture, organizations can make respect a core value and clearly define what it looks like in practice. This can include policies around inclusive language, equitable treatment, and zero tolerance for discrimination.


Leaders and managers can be held accountable for permitting a culture of respect by tying their performance evaluations and compensation to metrics around inclusion, psychological safety, and employee feedback. Regular training on unconscious bias, empathetic communication, and conflict resolution can equip leaders to proactively uphold a respectful environment.


Human Relevance

Aligning Talents and Opportunities: The principle of Human Relevance emphasizes the importance of recognizing each employee's unique skills and providing opportunities for growth and impact. Organizations can weave this into the Intended Culture by making talent development a stated priority and investing in robust learning and development programs.


To ensure this comes to life in the Permitted Culture, managers can be trained how to have regular career conversations with their team members, helping them identify strengths, aspirations, and areas for development. Encouraging job crafting, where employees can shape their roles to better align with their talents and interests, can further reinforce a culture of relevance.


Human Recognition

Celebrating Meaningful Contributions: Human Recognition underscores the power of appreciating and rewarding employee efforts in ways that feel authentic and meaningful. Building this into the Intended Culture can involve creating a variety of recognition programs that go beyond mere tenure or output, instead celebrating behaviors that exemplify company values or make a positive impact.


To truly permit a culture of recognition, leaders and managers need to provide frequent, specific, and timely praise. Highlighting employee stories and successes can be woven into regular communications and gatherings. Empowering peers to recognize each other can further democratize appreciation and make it a natural part of the everyday experience.


Human Responsibility

Championing Integrity and Ethics: The principle of Human Responsibility calls for a workplace where integrity, accountability, and ethical behavior are non-negotiable. Organizations can make this a pillar of their Intended Culture by clearly articulating their ethical standards, decision-making frameworks, and expectations around personal responsibility.


To ensure this permeates the Permitted Culture, leaders and managers can be evaluated not just on results but on how they achieve them. Regularly discussing ethical dilemmas, sharing cautionary tales, and celebrating examples of moral courage can normalize integrity as a daily practice. Providing safe channels for employees to raise concerns and ensuring swift, consistent consequences for breaches can further reinforce a culture of responsibility.


Human Routines

Supporting Sustainable Ways of Working: Human Routines recognize that employee well-being is deeply tied to the daily rhythms and practices of work. Organizations can signal the importance of sustainable, healthy routines in their Intended Culture by establishing clear boundaries around work hours, communication norms, and time off.


To truly permit a culture of sustainable routines, leaders and managers must model healthy habits, such as taking regular breaks, disconnecting outside of work hours, and prioritizing self-care. They must also make sure that their employees are afforded the opportunity to do the same. Encouraging team members to co-create shared agreements around communication and collaboration can empower employees to shape their own routines in a way that optimizes both productivity and well-being.


Human Readiness

Investing in Continuous Development: The principle of Human Readiness emphasizes the importance of equipping employees with the skills, knowledge, and resources they need to adapt and excel in an ever-changing world. Organizations can make this a cornerstone of their Intended Culture by making learning a core value and dedicating significant resources to employee development.


To ensure this translates into the Permitted Culture, leaders and managers can be evaluated on their ability to grow talent and create opportunities for stretch assignments and cross-functional learning. Providing dedicated time and budget for employees to pursue development activities can further signal that continuous growth is not just encouraged but expected.


Human Records

Protecting Employee Privacy and Data: Human Records calls for organizations to handle employee data with the utmost care and respect for privacy. This can be woven into the Intended Culture through clear data governance policies, transparent communication around data use, and rigorous security protocols.


To permit a culture of data ethics, leaders and managers can be trained on responsible data stewardship and held accountable for any breaches or misuse. Empowering employees to access and manage their own data can further reinforce a sense of trust and control. Regular audits and assessments can ensure that data practices align with stated values.


Human Representation

Advancing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: The principle of Human Representation recognizes that a truly caring workplace is one where every individual, regardless of background or identity, can see themselves reflected and valued at all levels of the organization. Building this into the Intended Culture requires a comprehensive DEI strategy that goes beyond mere numerical targets to address systemic barriers and cultivate a sense of belonging.


To truly permit a culture of representation, leaders and managers can be held accountable for creating inclusive teams and advancing diverse talent. Regularly measuring and reporting on DEI metrics, coupled with transparent action plans to address gaps, can signal that representation is a genuine priority. Empowering employee resource groups and integrating DEI into every aspect of the employee lifecycle can further embed representation into the daily reality.


The Power of Alignment: When Intended and Permitted Culture Converge

By intentionally shaping both the Intended and Permitted Culture around the 9 Principles of Employee Care, organizations can create workplaces where care is not just a buzzword but a lived reality. When leaders and managers are equipped, empowered, and held accountable for upholding these principles, they can foster environments where employees feel seen, supported, and inspired to bring their whole selves to work.


Embedding care into the cultural DNA of an organization is not a one-time initiative but an ongoing commitment. It requires regularly assessing the employee experience, openly acknowledging gaps between intent and reality, and taking swift action to course-correct. It demands a willingness to have difficult conversations, challenge long-held assumptions, and reimagine traditional ways of working.


But for organizations that are willing to do this hard, necessary work, the rewards are immense.


When an organization's Intended Culture aligns with its Permitted Culture something remarkable happens. It creates a workplace where the principle of care is not just an aspiration but an authentic, lived reality. This alignment unleashes a host of benefits that ripple across the organization, from the front lines to the bottom line.


Cultivating Trust and Psychological Safety

One of the most profound impacts of cultural alignment around care is the cultivation of trust and psychological safety. When employees experience a consistent culture where their well-being is genuinely prioritized, they feel safe to bring their whole selves to work. They trust that their unique needs and challenges will be met with empathy and support, rather than judgment or retribution.


This psychological safety is the foundation for open communication, creative risk-taking, and authentic engagement. In a workplace where people feel secure, they are more likely to voice ideas, admit mistakes, and challenge the status quo. They are more willing to invest their discretionary effort and go above and beyond, knowing that their contributions will be recognized and rewarded.


Enhancing Employee Well-being and Resilience

When care is embedded into the fabric of an organization's culture, it has a profound impact on employee well-being. In a workplace where Human Relationships are nurtured, Human Respect is upheld, and Human Routines are encouraged, employees feel seen, valued, and supported holistically. They are better equipped to manage stress, maintain work-life harmony, and prioritize self-care.


This focus on well-being is not just a feel-good initiative; it has tangible business outcomes. Research consistently shows that employees who feel physically, mentally, and emotionally well are more engaged, productive, and resilient. They are better able to navigate change, bounce back from setbacks, and bring their best selves to work each day.


Driving Innovation and Agility

n a culture where care is truly lived, employees feel empowered to take ownership, experiment, and learn. When Human Relevance is championed, and people are encouraged to leverage their unique strengths, they are more likely to bring forward novel ideas and approaches. When Human Responsibility is upheld, and people feel accountable for their actions, they are more proactive in identifying and solving problems.


This culture of innovation and agility is crucial in an era of constant disruption. Organizations that can harness the full potential of their people, encouraging them to adapt, create, and collaborate, are better positioned to seize opportunities and navigate uncertainties. By aligning around care, they create an environment where innovation isn't just a buzzword but a daily practice.


Attracting and Retaining Top Talent

In a world where the fight for talent is fierce, a culture of genuine care can be a powerful differentiator. When an organization's external employer brand and internal employee experience align around the 9 Principles of Employee Care, it becomes a magnet for top performers who are seeking more than just a paycheck.


Candidates are increasingly looking for workplaces where they can bring their whole selves, grow both personally and professionally, and contribute to something meaningful. By consistently living out a culture of care, organizations can attract diverse, high-caliber talent that shares their values and vision.


Moreover, when employees experience a positive, supportive culture day in and day out, they are more likely to stay and grow with the organization. In a culture of care, retention becomes less about perks and more about the deep sense of belonging, purpose, and mutual commitment that employees feel.


Amplifying Brand and Reputation

In an era of radical transparency, an organization's culture is increasingly visible to the outside world. Customers, partners, and stakeholders are looking beyond products and services to the values and behaviors that define a company. A culture that consistently lives out its commitment to care can be a powerful brand amplifier, building trust, loyalty, and advocacy.


When an organization's actions align with its professed values, it builds credibility and reputation. Stakeholders can see that the company isn't just paying lip service to employee well-being but is actually walking the talk. This authenticity can foster deeper, more enduring relationships with all stakeholders, from customers to investors to communities.


Realizing Sustainable Performance

Ultimately, aligning Intended and Permitted Culture around care is about creating the conditions for sustainable, long-term performance. When employees feel cared for and empowered, they are more engaged, creative, and productive. When teams feel psychologically safe and connected, they collaborate more effectively and navigate conflicts more constructively. When leaders feel accountable for upholding a culture of care, they make decisions that balance short-term gains with long-term well-being.


This holistic, human-centered approach to performance is what distinguishes great organizations from merely good ones. By putting people first and consistently living out their values, they create a virtuous cycle of trust, innovation, and results. They build resilience in the face of adversity, agility in the face of change, and purpose in the face of uncertainty.


 

Contact us today to evaluate your organization's culture, ability to deliver on the 9 Principles of Employee Care, and to get the help you need to align your intended and permitted cultures.

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