Photo of Stacey Harris, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board Contributor

Stacey Harris, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board Contributor

Transparency is something we’ve been talking about for some time in the HR industry. It is a mantra that we’ve been pushing for years. The belief is that the more open an organization is – the better off employees, organizations, industries, the entire working community will be in the end. Transparency will make life easier and get rid of all the tough decisions. What a load of fairytale dust!

Transparency is painful, hard, and takes a ton of work; it requires tough decisions, it expects high standards, and it forces everyone to work just that much harder. It doesn’t mean that we are going to like what we see or even agree with an organizations transparent culture. It is very likely that we’ll find out things about the behavior of employees, co-workers, and our leadership that will make us cringe. Our companies and employees will most certainly overreact, and we will initially make poor decisions because becoming transparent is a slow process. The cold hard fact is that before transparency is a good thing – it will be a terrible thing for most individuals involved in creating a transparent workplace. However, as human beings we need transparency; it allows us to trust our communities, organizations, and governments. It gives us clarity, direction, and most important a basis for sound decision making.

Some of you might know that I recently moved to Raleigh North Carolina with my family. One of the major goals we had during our move was to simply live healthier lives. We wanted to spend more time outside, eat organic food, and pay more attention to our personal needs rather than work responsibilities. We were well on our way to these goals – until we were struck this summer with a terrifying roadblock. My husband’s diagnosis of a rare form of Cancer, which seemingly came out of the blue.

My husband would be categorized as the opposite of a hypochondriac. He’s one of those people who prides himself on how rarely he goes to the doctor. He manages his pain and refuses most medication unless absolutely necessary. He’s always been relatively healthy, never smoked, and stayed active – and he’s stubborn as a mule. Getting a mental picture! So when he started having pains in his side earlier this year and developed breathing problems, his initial reaction was to just wait it out. Then he started dropping weight and his breathing problems became severe. Finally he let me take him to the doctors and for two months while he progressively went down-hill we waited for test results and data. Finally an eight day trip to the hospital and one exploratory surgery later and we were given the prognosis of a rare aggressive form of Cancer. Another tense two week wait, and finally we were told that he had better chances than most due to his age and current health, but he needed to start treatment immediately. The journey would be long and painful they said, but he could beat this – and that was the best news we had heard to date.

Why share this personal story in the context of transparency? Well, besides the fact that I’m a writer, and this is the only way I know to make sense of my world, I was struck with the fact that transparency was a critical part of our journey this summer. The cancer was something that was growing over time; the problem was that we were living without transparency. My husband wasn’t telling me everything that was wrong, I only knew what I saw, and no one was speaking with a healthcare provider. None of us had enough data to make informed decisions, and the data we did have was poor. The lack of transparency was almost fatal. But even once we knew we were in trouble and we needed immediate transparency, the process was slow and brutal. We needed to explore every bad and good behavior, we needed to dissect our lives, and make decisions with partial information. We learned that total transparency is a constant process, one that doesn’t come easily to human beings or organizations.   Like most companies, we weren’t closely tracking the data inputs in our personal lives. We couldn’t pin-point when symptoms started, or which behaviors caused certain outcomes. We didn’t have standard ways to capture daily data on symptoms and doctor visits. We were dealing with multiple doctors, nurses, and even insurance team members and I needed to track everything because none of them were speaking to each other. We were a large organization with the single goal of helping my husband improve his health, but everyone was running with their own approach and agendas.

Like any 40 year old organization struggling with cultural issues, once we started uncovering the problems, every layer we pulled back became worse. We went from thinking he had a pulmonary condition and kidney stones, to a rare immune deficiency virus, to finally uncovering the aggressive cancer. Each time we found something out, it threw our world into chaos; it made us re-evaluate our priorities, it made us want to close our eyes and look no further. It required we take immediate action, whether we were ready to take it or not.

When an existing organization takes the plunge into the freezing waters of transparency, it is rarely a pleasant experience and it is often forced upon them. In the early 90’s both Nike and Levi-Strauss were some of the first organizations forced to face this generation’s growing expectations for product transparency. They were targeted for their unfair labor practices, and spent years re-building their brands and changing internal practices to create transparent supply chains. Research later done by Dr. David J. Doorey, a Professor of Employment & Labor Law in the School of Human Resource Management at York University in Toronto, found that both organizations were able to move to full disclosure over time – but not without challenges. Today Nike continues to keep its top spot in the sports apparel industry, while Levi-Strauss & Co is struggling to stay competitive in the challenging retail and clothing market. Those organizations that have grown up with cultures of transparency such as High Tech start-ups like Buffer  and fast food poster-child for transparency Chipotle may have less baggage than older more established companies, but they still face challenges with their transparency decisions.

Transparency comes in many forms such as traditional transparency topics:

  • Financials
  • Social and environmental impact
  • Products and services
  • Ethics and Risks
  • Diversity

As well as the more recent transparency discussions making headlines such as:

  • Employee privacy issues
  • Compensation and rewards
  • Succession planning
  • Personal technology usage
  • Engagement and branding

Although Cancer was our number one enemy, we found that transparency in all areas of our lives was necessary. After his chemotherapy sessions started he faced more immediate dangers than the Cancer from high-blood sugar levels, weight-loss, and dehydration issues. My stoic husband who would happily suffer in silence, needed to become as transparent as possible about everything that went into and out of his body. He faced daily risks from falling and or cuts as his hemoglobin levels plummeted, and he needed to learn to ask for help. Like many organizations, it is sometimes easy to focus on the long term issues, but ignore the more immediate challenges that are eating away at an organizations culture such as turn-over rates, apathy, or rewards for poor behaviors but positive outcomes.

In this midst of our journey to transparency, we had to keep going. Our kids still needed to be taken care of, work still needed to be done, and our home didn’t suddenly clean itself, and all of these things became more hectic than usual. Similarly for organizations, work still continues. Board members and stock markets continue to need updates, employees continue to look for guidance, and competitors are always looking for the next opportunity. None of the day to day tasks can be put aside to deal with challenges that transparency unearths. The approach to transparency must be holistic, and integrated with an organization’s everyday activities.

The data is lukewarm at best on the impact of transparency. Organizations that are transparent about things like succession planning, salary ranges, criteria for promotions or movement, available opportunities, even learnable mistakes seem to be better at keeping top talent and in some cases see better performance and growth. Organizations that expand transparency to supply chains, external environmental impact, and social impact also see financial and business outcomes when their transparency goals are tightly integrated with their business goals. But really in today’s world where on average in a single minute over 2.5 Million users share content on Facebook, 350,000 tweets are sent, and 270,000 snaps are shared through Snapchat the idea that an organization can continue to adhere to non-transparent policies, is a bit like an ostrich sticking his head in the sand. The data is very clear that when organizations hallowed walls are breached, the fall-out from a lack of transparency can bring  them to their knees.

The question is no longer should your organization become more transparent, but rather when and how much transparency will you provide. HR’s role is to prepare the leadership and employees for the realities and actions required of a transparent organization, and share when possible the promise of the benefits for all this hard work. I didn’t envy the job of my husband’s nurses and doctors each time they looked at us and had to provide deeper insight into our growing nightmare, but I also know that they provided us with an honest assessment of what we were facing and gained our trust along the way.

Do’s and Don’ts for your Transparency Journey:

  • Do start
  • Data, honesty, and trust are necessary ingredients
  • Don’t over-react, all judgment should be suspended
  • Actions should be based on data and desired outcomes
  • Transparency is useless without eventual action and guidance
  • Don’t give up during the darkest hour, knowledge eventually leads to understanding

Today my husband is doing well, achieving a stand-off with the cancer, and a long-term strategy for chemotherapy treatments with a positive outlook. No he isn’t cured, and transparency won’t cure an organizations ills but it provides a fighting chance. Transparency was very difficult, but in the end necessary and life-saving. At the end of the day, transparency for organizations is just as important to their survival.

 
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  • Chris Willis

    In my 20+ year experience leading people in a small, open, entrepreneurial environment, I have found that most all candidates will tell you during an interview that they value transparency. However, in practice, many are ill prepared to deal with the messiness that comes with seeing how the sausage is made – and then being forced to sit down and eat it together. Over the years, I have had more than one employee leave for the perceived safety that comes from being on a “needs to know basis” with a large employer — trading the ups and downs of an open book model for life as a figure on a spreadsheet that can be right-sized out into the cold, cruel world without prior notice in a single keystroke.

    However, I agree with you that although it is messy and fraught with danger, transparency is a necessary component of a healthy organization (or family). Hiding the truth robs people from the strength and resilience that comes from overcoming great obstacles together. It may feel better for a short while, but ultimately leads to disappointment and distrust, rarely leading to a good long-term outcome.

    I’m sending you wishes that your husband beats this foe, and that your newly imposed openness and bonding serve you all well for many, many happier years to come.

  • Thank you Chris, and as you noted we humans often forget that just because Transparency may be good for us in the end, it doesn’t mean it is an enjoyable or easy process.

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