How to Balance Transparency and Secrecy

Even as a call for greater transparency takes hold in business, some information is best kept secret.
transparency and secrets

On Feb. 7, 2017, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) tried to read a 1986 letter from the late Coretta Scott King, expressing her opinion that Sen. Jeff Sessions was unfit to serve as a federal judge. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R–Ky.) then silenced Warren through the Senate’s Rule 19, which states that “no Senator in debate shall, directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.” Warren persisted, with her response promptly appearing on Facebook Live and across the internet as she read the letter to an audience of millions. If Warren simply read the letter without opposition, some might argue, the event would likely have gone relatively unnoticed.

This phenomenon of trying to prevent the spread of information, only to have the opposite occur, is called the Streisand Effect, and it isn’t limited to just our government or public figures. Companies that try to keep information secret among their workers might face headaches similar to the ones McConnell likely had in the days after his motion.

While there’s some merit to transparency in business, it’s doubtful that many business leaders would want every employee to know every piece of company information. Areas to keep quiet on might include:

  • New product updates. “In an age where new technologies and ideas can be mimicked so quickly, organizations look to keep their new product updates under wraps to maintain their competitive positioning,” said Jeff Corbin, founder and CEO of APPrise Mobile, a native app company based in New York.
  • Financial metrics, especially if they’re poor, Corbin said. This can be used competitively in business, and they can impact recruiting efforts.
  • Companies the organization is about to acquire, as well as other information that might impact stock prices, said Brian Kropp, HR practice leader at CEB Inc., an information services company based in Arlington, Virginia.

Workers want to know information that will influence their daily work. But the information that executives share can’t be all positive; employees want the good, the bad and the reality, Kropp said. It’s important, he said, to give enough information to workers so they’re successful, without posing risks to the business. But keeping hush is not likely to keep all sensitive information from leaking.

“Employees have always wanted to talk with each other,” Kropp said, and the Streisand Effect in companies likely leads to thoughts of worst-case scenarios, such as layoffs. “Shutting down conversations and communications tends to create anxiety rather than tending to create solutions in most cases,” Kropp said.

To determine what to share, Kropp listed the following questions:

  1. Is the downside of this information getting out to the public more or less than the upside of letting my employees know about it? That gives you a good sense of where to be transparent or not.
  2. When we share this information, if an employee were to ask their manager about it, would that manager be able to provide a good explanation as to what’s going on here? If not, that’s a good reason to share.
  3. If our customers were to find out, would they have a positive, negative or indifferent reaction?

If the business leader decides to share a certain type of information, do so consistently, regardless of if it’s good news or bad news, APPrise Mobile’s Corbin said. “Before sharing information that is good, ask yourself whether you would be sharing the information if it was bad. If the answer is no, you wouldn’t, then [it’s] probably best not to set the precedent of disclosing,” Corbin said.

And when deciding with whom to discuss the information, Corbin advised establishing a network of trusted associates. “By having a defined and trustworthy group, you can sleep well knowing the information is safe. At the same time, if the information leaks, then you will have a better chance of identifying — or at least narrowing down — who was responsible and take the necessary actions to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

To further determine who to share information with, additional questions from CEB’s Kropp could be helpful:

  1. Who needs to know this to do their job better?
  2. Who, if they were to find this out later, would be upset?
  3. Who are the people who might not be impacted by this but will influence others’ perceptions of it?
  4. Who will have good insights because of previous experiences? Share the information with them for their input.

In the end, Kropp said it’s all about building trust, and executives should add to that trust more than they take away from it. Another way to build trust is through communication, according to “The 10 Laws of Trust,” a book by Joel Peterson, chairman of airline JetBlue. “Leaders must be determined to share the facts with everyone, simply, persuasively, and thoroughly,” he wrote in the book. “That means telling it like it is, during good times and bad.”

For instance, at APPrise Mobile, Corbin makes a conscious effort to share both when the company gains new business and when a client leaves. Rather than focusing on the negativity of deals lost, it becomes a teachable moment. “There is a lesson to learn from every good and bad situation,” Corbin said. “Keeping everyone informed of the wins and losses allows us to do self-introspection, so that we learn from our successes and don’t make the same mistake twice.”

Lauren Dixon is an associate editor at Talent Economy.