5 Reasons You Should Be Transparent at Work

by Salary.com Staff - Original publish date: January 30, 2013

Is Transparency Good or Bad?

Transparency is one of the most misunderstood concepts in executive circles. Clear to all ranks however, is the notion that a perceived lack of it can have a crippling effect on a leader’s reputation.

Consider both current U.S. presidential candidate and incumbent, on the issue. When the latter, Barack Obama, took office, his Administration promised that it would be "the most open and transparent in history." All evidence to the contrary, say prominent critics who point to the government’s alleged disappointing track record in processing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. On the flip side, Democrats (joined by some vocal Republicans), are assailing challenger Mitt Romney for not releasing the standard 10-year stretch of tax returns as presidential hopefuls had done for the better part of the previous -- and this -- century. Meanwhile the media are having a ball with the Romney shut-down persona which seemingly won’t let anyone in, including them.  

Transparency is a Tool -- Use It Wisely

There’s clearly something to what Irish politician Gerry Adams once observed, "One man’s transparency is another man’s humiliation." However, done right, being transparent can enhance the brands of both executives and organizations, bolster credibility during crisis, and even serve as a strategic weapon in the rhetorical war for stakeholder trust.

Business leaders are discovering that the demand for "radical transparency" is increasingly built into the executive job description. Simultaneously, social media, "gotcha" mainstream media (notice the explosion of fact-checkers during the Republican and Democratic National Conventions), impatient investors, and hostile stakeholders who leak confidential information make it impossible to duck the transparency requirement. Steve Jobs might just have been the last business leader who could get away with secrecy and use it brilliantly as a marketing strategy.

For the rest of us, here are 5 proven ways for executives to most effectively manage their reputation and that of their organizations in this era of full disclosure.

5. Develop Your Own Style of Transparency

While there are best practices out there about what, how, and when to disclose, the most effective approach is to develop one’s unique style. In essence, "transparency" can be simply defined as a way of communicating that seeks to inform, not conceal. The latter, according to George Orwell in "1984", is obvious in the tone, language, reasoning, and material cited by tyrannical nations and organizations. 

A master in putting her own imprint on disclosure has been U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She goes from one job to a more powerful one, seamlessly weaving a persona -- from wife and mother to first lady to impassioned senator to astute head diplomat -- for the new position and with Clintonesque charm manages the mechanisms that give various constituencies access to her. Of course she’s a pro in cooperating with the media. Earlier in her career she leveraged the publishing of books to allow others to peer in. Although her grasp of impression management in those monographs was obvious, many in the media were satisfied that they learned a good deal about who this leader was. 

4. Be Authentic

Recall how the devout among diverse religions prayed for Christopher Hitchens when he was dying. That was despite the fact that he was a strident atheist who had not long ago published "God Is Not Great." Even those who didn’t love him respected him because he was "authentic," communicating his consistent truth through his writing, speaking and ready-for-battle guest appearances. Hitchens unwaveringly took responsibility for the consequences of his values. When diagnosed with esophageal cancer after years of heavy smoking among other health-adverse behavior, he dryly commented that it was time to pay the piper, quipping, "I burned the candle at both ends and it gave a lovely light."

Authenticity doesn’t mean total disclosure. It can be best defined as an alignment of values with behavior. If a company’s values include sustainability and protecting planet Earth and it’s found to be polluting rivers in contrast, not being perceived as authentic will only be the beginning of its problems.

Recent research, such as by the University of Greenwich in London, confirms that it’s business common sense to put limits on what has been called “authentic self expression.” No organization could function smoothly with all players being their “real selves.”  Instead, "authenticity" sometimes just requires a willingness to put up for public view a specific human being, with strengths and flaws, likes and dislikes. It doesn’t have to go any further than that.  The classic example is Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffett who’s well known for being a “character.” As a businessman he would most likely be trusted even without his venerable investment persona because we believe he’s the real deal. His image humanized a major player in the cutthroat world of high finance.

3. Say You're Sorry -- And Mean It!

In a world where social media is everywhere and missteps are easily captured and shared, executives increasingly, often suddenly, find themselves in the media spotlight, reputation in the balance. From poor decision-making to ethical lapses to coping with stress through outsized self-indulgent behavior, opportunities for all types of fails abound. When “caught,” the knee-jerk reaction is to apologize. The problem -- most mea culpa lack follow-through, making a mere apology largely ineffective or even counterproductive if it isn’t accompanied by evidence of policy or perceivable change in behavior now and in the future. To please the cynics a key to effective communication is: Show, don’t tell. With apologies so commonplace, even those entirely sincere often fail to resonate.  

Instead, it is action that persuades. 

When it became public that Yahoo head Scott Thompson had misrepresented his academic credentials on his resume, the board -- with a little push from a major shareholder -- took action. Thompson was sacked and Yahoo sent the signal that, although the company itself was in crisis, it would not tolerate ethical lapses. That decisive action certainly didn’t hurt in attracting the talents of Google executive Marissa Mayer, adding a character to root for in the sorry Yahoo story.   

An apology all by itself often won't cut it and a fundamental of the 12-step approach to recovery from addictions is that the apology or amends is worthless without evidence of behavior change.  The Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) sponsor won’t let someone off the hook until there is a plan to correct what the program labels "character defects."

2. Leverage the Transparency

Transparency -- especially since it involves social media, mainstream media, NGOs, and investors -- is an ideal tool for reaching beyond the organization to solicit input from constituencies. For example, executives in the besieged apparel industry can explain to consumers how their efforts at improving work conditions for low-wage workers will raise prices by X amount -- bringing consumers into the decision-making process and educating them on the why behind higher prices. A study by University of Missouri researchers Gargi Bhaduri and Jung Ha-Brookshire found that consumers would pay 15 to 20 percent more for sustainable manufacturing practices. 

Releasing internal information in this way and opening strategic planning to discussion can prevent global public relations disasters which Apple experienced about its supply chain. In response, it released the list of all its 150 suppliers. The media and public could then see only a few of them were the -- no pun intended -- bad apples. In short, transparency provides fresh approaches for influence.

1. Announce Bad News on Your Own Terms

What happens if you ignore the above list and you do mess up? Fess up, and as soon as possible.

Professor Shelley Wigley at the University of Texas at Arlington looked at the phenomenon of "stealing thunder," whereby an individual breaks his own bad news. She looked at the contrasting strategies of those who respond only after the story breaks, and those who initiate the story. Eliot Spitzer, who, except for a short statement of apology read after the prostitution story hit the news, embargoed the media for two days, at which point he resigned. His replacement David Patterson, on the other hand, sat down with his wife and gave interviews in which both admitted to extramarital affairs. Wigley quoted Daily News reporter Juan Gonzalez: "Like any smart politician, he knows the best way to handle difficult news is to confront it squarely and rapidly." Similarly, Tiger Woods avoided the press about his then-alleged extramarital affairs while David Letterman made the announcement of his own affair in the intro to his late-night talk show.

Wigley observed the stealing thunder strategy has a mixed history: Initiators of bad information build credibility for themselves, but they might also prompt further investigation. Yet it’s also possible that by getting ahead of the story, they take the air out of it, deflating its value as a "gotcha" item. The results of her study confirmed the latter thesis: In terms of media coverage, "In both studies, sources who stole thunder were associated with more positive frames in both the headlines and articles."

Like most factors in business, transparency is an asset which can be strategically managed.  Done well, this could become a source of competitive advantage and enhance one’s personal brand and reputation.

Know What You're Worth

Transparency is good, but don't let your employers see right through you when it's time to talk salary. Whether you're negotiating salary at a new job or asking for a raise, you need to be prepared and know what you're worth. And Salary.com can help.

The first thing you should do is research, so you're able to come to the table armed with the knowledge of what your job is worth. Use our free Salary Wizard below to find out what's a fair salary for your position. You can enter your location, education level, years of experience and more to find out an appropriate salary range before you negotiate.

Good luck.