Growing up hearing old-school maxims like "business is war" and "loose lips sink ships," the concept of workplace transparency-no matter how earnestly proposed-always seemed a little idealistic to me. But I've since lost my skepticism.
When an organization is more transparent with their employees, they tend to be more successful in several areas: they have increased employee engagement, stronger company culture, and transparency fosters a type of comfort that allows employees to freely communicate. A transparent work environment also helps employees feel valued and encourages creativity.
But what exactly is workplace transparency? One simple definition of a transparent workplace is "an organization that operates in a way that creates openness between managers and employees." We'll dive deeper into this below.
Workplace transparency is proven to breed long-term success. Implemented properly, increased transparency creates trust between employers and employees, helps improve morale, lowers job-related stress (which is especially important during the Covid-19 pandemic), while increasing employee happiness and boosting performance. And being transparent costs nothing, which gives it an exceptional ROI.
Given all the documented benefits of a transparent workplace culture, why aren't more organizations practicing openness and transparency? Perhaps it's the fear of being vulnerable that makes transparency sound more risky than rewarding. Or maybe some companies don't know where to start.
While not everyone has the power to create policies within their company, there are still many ways to promote transparency in your workplace, and foster more transparency, in the process.
What is workplace transparency?
In general, workplace transparency is a philosophy of sharing information freely in an effort to benefit the organization and its people. That could mean executives sharing company information with the whole team, or individual teammates sharing feedback with each other. It can go even further and involve what your organization communicates to candidates, customers, and the public.
While you may not be able to dictate that your executive team be more open about company performance, that doesn't make you any less integral to workplace transparency. Transparency involves everyone in the organization; it takes a collective effort to foster and maintain a transparent culture, especially when it comes to setting boundaries and managing expectations.
Defining boundaries is a critical aspect of transparency because the wrong types of workplace transparency can create just as many problems as the good types solve. If the goal is to encourage constructive communication, people need to understand what that means, what they should expect from coworkers and executives, and exactly where the limits and boundaries are. And before that, it's crucial to understand the intent of workplace transparency.
Defining the intent behind transparency in the workplace
One of the most effective ways to prevent the wrong types of transparency from happening is to make the organization's motivations for transparency well-known and documented. All the worst elements of a toxic workplace-political maneuvering, backstabbing, offensive behavior, and even harassment-can hide behind the guise of "honesty" (e.g. "I was just being honest") if boundaries and intentions are not crystal clear from the start.
At BambooHR, that intent is expressed in the company values introduced during onboarding, and reinforced constantly through internal communications, meeting themes, performance reviews, and annual awards. Our belief in transparency lives in the value Be Open, but that value exists within a framework of other values, like Assume the Best, Lead from Where You Are, and Do the Right Thing.
Employees learn from day one that being open supersedes title or experience (Lead from Where You Are), is subject to our business standards (Do the Right Thing), and should always be constructive, rather than be a personal criticism (Assume the Best). This multifaceted framework keeps people mindful of the intent behind Be Open, and discourages the idea that you have free reign to say whatever you want, without considering the consequences.
What are the benefits of workplace transparency?
1. Encourages communication and sharing
When employees see how open and communicative upper management is with their entire organization, they'll also feel empowered to share. This could mean sharing innovative ideas, new processes to improve workflows, or feedback during performance reviews. Companies thrive when their workforce trusts that they can safely bring forward new ideas and feedback.
2. Better employee engagement and happiness
A transparent workplace recognises their people's hard work and successes, and builds trust among management and employees, which in turn, leads to happier, more engaged workers. Engaged and happy workers can only benefit your company's bottom line.
3. Stronger workplace culture and values
When your company makes an active effort to share knowledge across the organization, it's demonstrating that management trusts, respects, and values employees at all levels. Leaders are responsible for setting the precedent that transparency is valuable, and expected across the entire organization.
4. Better customer relations
All of the above benefits translate into better customer relations, because your staff will care about your company's performance. Employees who feel trusted and respected will want their organization to thrive.
What does good workplace transparency look like?
If company values and internal communications define the "why" behind transparency, some areas where best practices can create a very positive impact include:
Recruiting and hiring
There are ways to create transparency throughout the entire recruiting and hiring process, all of which will benefit an organization. Detailed, accurate job descriptions, timely and honest communication from recruiters, and open discussion between collaborators during the interview process, are all examples of good transparency. You could also include the salary range in the job posting, as one study found it to be the most important aspect of a job ad to candidates. Transparency translates to faster, more accurate hires, and an improved employer brand.
Performance management and career development
One way BambooHR has encouraged transparency in performance management reviews is by separating reviews from their traditional ties to promotions and salary increases. Shorter, more frequent evaluations allow managers and employees to remain in the moment, and discuss current projects, rather than judging an entire year's performance in one agonizingly long review. You can also include peer evaluations, which offer insights at the ground level that might be hard for a supervisor to see when they're managing an entire department. These factors create a more transparent, and less intimidating review process, that's been shown to boost employee engagement.
Company performance and goal-setting
It can be difficult to convince executives to pull back the curtain on company numbers, and how they make big decisions. However, being open with employees about the company's performance and future plans prevents speculation, keeps anxiety levels low, and can even offer an increased sense of ownership and trust. All of those are hallmarks of a highly engaged workforce, and it's no secret that engagement directly impacts the bottom line.
Whether between two partners or multiple departments, transparency in group projects is essential, even for small organizations. You can encourage this type of transparency by implementing good processes and formalizing feedback. Project managers should feel responsible not just for scheduling, but also for setting and maintaining high expectations at every stage of a project. Stakeholders and service providers alike may need some time and education to begin collaborating more effectively, but the improvement in quality and the reduction in shoulder-tap requests should convince all parties that the outcomes are worth the effort.
Self-preservation is a powerful instinct. The knowledge that the truth isn't always pleasant means that even as adults, many of us hold back when transparency might make us vulnerable. We're taught that honesty is the best policy, but that if we have nothing nice to say, it's best to say nothing at all.
But transparency isn't about throwing caution to the wind or blurting out whatever comes to mind; it's about understanding the benefit of honest and forthright communication in your organization. Knowledge is power, and the lesson to take away is that transparency, truth, and openness spread knowledge that empowers people and businesses to do better work together.
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