The success of transparency in an individual organisation will depend on the discretion of business leaders and their ability to determine how much is too much.
From the talent acquisition process to the retention of existing employees, companies are increasingly recognising the importance of establishing transparency in the workplace. Characterised by open communication, honesty, regular feedback, respect and admitting faults, transparency is not only important in cultivating a productive work environment, but is also key to building healthy relationships between employers and employees.
That said, a common misconception is that having more transparency is better. Though transparent communication at work can improve company morale, interpersonal interactions, company reputation, and build brand loyalty, too much transparency may backfire.
When is Transparency Useful? The global HR world is changing rapidly. In the last few years, recruiters have seen significant shifts in demand for contingent workers, the rapid adoption of technologies across industries, and the introduction of a new demographic cohort, Generation Zers, to the workforce. At a time where the talent landscape is so diverse and extensive, transparency in the hiring process goes a long way in helping employers attract the right people—who not only fit the demands of a job, but can acclimatise to the company culture as well.
From the time an open position is posted, to the final handshake upon the offer of employment, applicants should be privy to open and honest communication from potential employers about what to expect at every stage of the hiring process.
Beginning with the hiring process, recruiters have obligations to not only be clear about available positions and their job scopes, but with more companies integrating background screening into their talent acquisition process, there is an even greater need to be transparent with applicants about who receives their personal information and the screening processes they will undergo. Internally, screening measures may also help improve transparency as they assure existing employees of a safe work environment—with the knowledge that employers have taken reasonable care to reduce negligent hiring liabilities by conducting thorough background checks on potential candidates.
Furthermore, when there is transparent communication within an organisation, and leaders are open about the company’s growth plans and individual employees’ career development routes, employees will be able to have a better understanding of how their job roles contribute to accomplishing their business’ visions and will, in turn, experience a greater sense of ownership towards the company’s undertakings.
In line with this, Quantum Workplace’s 2015 Employee Engagement Trends Report recently reported that the top employee engagement drivers were trust in three areas: that the organisation will be successful in the future; the leaders of the organisation will set the right course for the rest of the organisation; and that the senior leadership team will be able to lead the company to achieve this future success. All of these factors illustrate the importance of mutual trust and understanding, laid firmly on the grounds of transparency.
When does Transparency Backfire?
Though it is valid to say that collecting and sharing information has never been easier, transparency is not a universal solution. In fact, too much transparency can potentially create new problems that can actually decrease constructive behaviour between employees.
For example, according to Professor David De Cremer of the Harvard Business Review, complete transparency is meant to open up channels that bring facts to the surface, but if it is left unregulated, this could turn people’s focus towards the “who” and “what”, rather than the “why”, thus creating a culture of blame that will discourage even your best workers.
Too much transparency can also spark resistance when companies advocate for complete transparency with the aim of punishing bad behaviour and rewarding good behaviour. This can come across as communicating impossible moral standards that may provoke employees to resist. Drawing on cognitive evaluation theory, individual intrinsic motivation is contingent on ethical leadership, and when leaders are perceived as unethical, employees tend to demonstrate the same negative behaviour in return.
How can Employers Exercise Transparency Effectively?
The challenge is indeed for organisations to find the sweet spot between privacy and transparency; but there are steps leaders can take towards striking the right balance.
For one, screening employees, both present and future, can help set the right tone for an organisation and establish expectations for all staff. Companies can then further the transparency agenda by creating boundaries around individual teams or, as Ethan Bernstein, Assistant Professor of Leadership and Organisational Behaviour at Harvard Business School describes them, “zones of attention”. This would encourage a controlled level of transparency without exposing every little action to the inspection of a crowd, and also help avoid politicking and prevent efforts from being wasted on managing impressions. Employers can also try defining and implementing limited blocks of time during which employees are given greater degrees of freedom for which they can prepare and fully utilise.
At the end of the day, transparency in an organisation is undeniably important as it encourages the development of a positive employee culture and can help cement a company’s branding by building up a social contract of trust and responsibility between stakeholders. However, transparency is never a quick fix, and if managed poorly, can result in costly consequences. Thus, the success of transparency in an organisation will depend on the discretion of business leaders and their ability to determine how much is too much, based on individual organisations.
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