Embracing a culture of transparency empowers both employees andÂ organizations alike. Here, five CHROs share their best practices.
By Marta Chmielowicz
Trust is the foundation of any healthy relationship,Â offering a bedrock of security and loyalty that weathersÂ thick and thin. This extends to employer-employeeÂ relationships, but to get it right, organizations need toÂ embrace truth, transparency, and vulnerability. OnlyÂ then can connections between employees and managersÂ strengthen, empowering people and businesses to workÂ better together.
According to Naveen Bhateja, executive vice presidentÂ and CHRO of Medidata Solutions, the trend towardÂ greater transparency has grown tremendously in the pastÂ four to five years in response to significant volatility andÂ uncertainty in the world.
âWhen you have conditions like that, employees oftenÂ look to organizations to step up and be more open aboutÂ how they feel in terms of whatâs happening externally,âÂ he says. âFor example, during a town hall meeting overÂ the summer held to discuss social injustice, one of ourÂ founders discussed his own experience growing up as anÂ immigrant. A number of employees shared how muchÂ they appreciated his transparency and vulnerability. ItÂ was an experience and sentiment many employees couldÂ relate to.â
Transparency is more than just a buzzword; it requiresÂ an organization-wide commitment to honest and openÂ communication, and constant diligence to ensure trustÂ and accountability.
âWhen I think of organizations that are really successfulÂ at transparency, Iâve always seen that it starts at the top,âÂ says Candace Nicolls, senior vice president of people andÂ workplace at Snagajob. âIn high performing cultures,Â employees take their cues from those around them,Â and when they look up, you want them to see behaviorÂ thatâs reflective of your values and beliefs. It also takesÂ consistency. If employees canât trust that every message youÂ deliver is truthful, that perception of transparency is gone.â
According to Steve Eller, CHRO of Beacon HealthÂ System, maintaining open and honest communicationÂ with employees can help reduce anxiety while limitingÂ the spread of harmful rumors and false informationÂ that could potentially damage company reputationÂ and employee confidence. By embracing a culture ofÂ transparency, Eller says that companies can lead withÂ facts and proactively shape the narrative.
How can companies achieve a truly transparent culture?
Step One: Share Company Goals
The first component of building a culture of transparencyÂ is communicating organizational goals to employees.Â Often, executive leaders struggle to realize their visionÂ for the business because they fail to share that visionÂ with their workforce. Omnitracs CHRO Stacey Martin saysÂ that companies need to start by establishing a sharedÂ understanding of where the organization is headed.Â Then, leaders need to clearly outline their expectationsÂ and connect the dots between larger organizationalÂ goals and the day-to-day contributions of employees.
âA lot of times, companies and employees struggleÂ because thereâs a set of goals known at the executiveÂ level and board level and thereâs a different set of goalsÂ published to the employees,â she explains. âLetâs be veryÂ transparent with our employees and share with them theÂ good, the bad, and the ugly. Letâs share with them whereÂ weâre going, where we think our challenges are, and letâsÂ ask them for help. Letâs make sure they understand thatÂ theyâre here for a reason and that we need them to helpÂ us all achieve our collective vision.â
By being upfront about goals, expectations, andÂ challenges, organizations can empower their workforceÂ to perform at their very best.
Step Two: Engage Employees in Key Decisions
Part of aligning employees with organizational goals isÂ keeping them informed and involved in key decisions.Â At Medidata, managers play a crucial role in sharingÂ the rationale around business decisions and involvingÂ employees in the decision-making as much as possible.
For example, the companyâs leadership engages itsÂ business resource groups to determine which programsÂ they will prioritize to drive a more inclusive culture. âWeÂ also share engagement scores with engagement councilÂ members and ask that each council select a priorityÂ item to work on so that they can be change agents andÂ influence leadership,â Bhateja.
As a result of this approach, Medidataâs employeeÂ engagement survey recorded above-benchmark scoresÂ for employee involvement in decision-makingâa veryÂ unusual feat for a high-tech, hyper growth company thatÂ makes decisions quickly.
Omnitracs also recognizes the importance of employeeÂ involvement in decision-making; the companyâsÂ workforce played a key role in the decision toÂ permanently close five offices following the shift toÂ remote work. Martin says she approached the decisionÂ by gathering employee feedback about the experienceÂ of working from home, informing employees of theÂ operating costs that would be saved by the closures, andÂ outlining a clear plan showing how the money would beÂ reinvested back into people programs.
âI was very transparent and told them that I could closeÂ the office and save a million and a half dollars to theÂ bottom line and reinvest that money to people programs,Â rewards strategies, and additional headcount whereÂ teams were potentially strapped,â she explains. âWe alsoÂ rolled out a program where we helped employees getÂ what they needed to be successful to work from homeÂ permanently so that if they no longer had the option toÂ come back into the office, that they were comfortableÂ working from home.â
Employees were encouraged to provide feedbackÂ throughout the process via pulse surveys through theÂ employee engagement platform and corporate Intranet,Â as well as Microsoft Teams chats for each location thatÂ was being closed.
âWe leveraged technology heavily to make sure we wereÂ connecting with our employees so that they felt likeÂ they had all the information they needed and they hadÂ a chance to give us feedback throughout the process,âÂ Martin says.
Step Three: Acknowledge Struggles
A culture of transparency requires immense vulnerability,Â openness, and availability from leadership teams. LeadersÂ have to not only share their goals and aspirations, butÂ also the areas where theyâre strugglingâand that can beÂ a hard pill to swallow.
âBeing really transparent with people requires leadershipÂ courage that will allow you to admitÂ your own failures and hurtles,â saysÂ Martin. âDonât go forward andÂ create a transparent cultureÂ unless youâre willing toÂ be vulnerable, ask forÂ help, admit failures, andÂ apologize and be humbleÂ if you let the teamÂ down.â
This is especiallyÂ important whenÂ organizations faceÂ difficult circumstances,Â particularly when cuttingÂ wages or headcount. DurellÂ Vieau, global HR director ofÂ Lhoist, says that when facing suchÂ obstacles, leaders should consistentlyÂ communicate the financial state of theÂ business and inform employees of any measures beingÂ taken to control costs. They also need to ensure thatÂ they are delicate, respectful, and compassionate in theirÂ communications to take care of those who are impactedÂ as well as those who are not.
However, there is a fine line to walk. While it is good toÂ be vulnerable and open, Bhateja emphasizes that leadersÂ should exercise discretion to make sure the informationÂ they are sharing does not backfire or overwhelmÂ employees.
âYou never want to be in an information overloadÂ situation where people are second guessing everythingÂ thatâs done by management or leadership because youâveÂ been way too transparent,â he explains. âYou have toÂ consider how people will benefit from the informationÂ that youâre sharing. It really needs to help make peopleâsÂ lives easier, simpler, better, and more informed as theyÂ continue to execute.â
Step Four: Leverage a Variety of Communication Channels
The shift to remote work has challenged manyÂ organizationsâ ability to engage and communicate withÂ their workforce. As massive team meetings becomeÂ a thing of the past, companies are turning to virtualÂ tools and getting creative with the ways they shareÂ information with employees.
âYou have to use multiple means for gettingÂ the message out,â says Eller. âJustÂ because youâve put it in one placeÂ doesnât mean that everyone isÂ going to see it and youâll getÂ full comprehension by theÂ organization. In terms of bestÂ practices, we have not foundÂ one mechanism thatâs theÂ be-all end-all formatâitâs aÂ combination of methods.â
Leveraging a variety ofÂ communication tools wasÂ especially important forÂ Beacon Health System in theÂ early stages of the pandemicÂ as hospitals struggled to remainÂ staffed and supplied under the strainÂ of COVID-19. Eller says that his companyÂ posted graphics and information about theÂ availability of PPE in six or seven different formatsÂ to avoid rumors and ensure that the workforce knewÂ they would be supported and protected in the workÂ environment.
In addition to spreading information, a multi-prongedÂ communication approach is also essential for makingÂ leaders more accessible. Vieau says that her companyâsÂ remote communications strategy post-COVID involvedÂ a major push to create an open-door policy with seniorÂ leaders. While the company relied on large face-to-faceÂ team meetings in the past, it quickly transitionedÂ to virtual employee forums via the Microsoft TeamsÂ Live Event platform; recorded messages from companyÂ leaders; and monthly Q&A sessions addressing employeeÂ concerns.
Likewise, Beacon Health System developed five-to-10-minute âLap with a Leaderâ recordings, wherein aÂ communications representative joins an executive leaderÂ for one lap around a track in Beaconâs health and fitnessÂ facility while discussing the state of the business andÂ answering employee questions. These videos are thenÂ shared through the âWorkplaceâ online communicationÂ tool, a Facebook-style platform for employees.
Snagajob implemented a similar approach, deliveringÂ twice-weekly messages from the CEO on the companyâsÂ Intranet that addressed changes in the market,Â feedback from customers and the board, and sources ofÂ information used to make business decisions.
âWeâve scaled the frequency of those messages up andÂ down as needed in response to what weâve heard fromÂ employees,â says Nicolls. âThose messages are alsoÂ structured to balance business impacts with go forwardÂ strategies, as well as recognition of the challengesÂ our employees are facing as people, and theyâve beenÂ incredibly effective.â
Medidata has gone one step further, encouraging leadersÂ to mingle with employees by participating in employeeÂ engagement events like celebrations or yoga classes toÂ build camaraderie and trust. During the initial spike ofÂ COVID-19, Bhateja says that executive leaders postedÂ videos on the company Intranet sharing how they wereÂ coping with the lockdown and offering words of supportÂ and encouragement.
âWe felt it was important for us to share these messagesÂ as videos so that they could be more personal, and itÂ was also an opportunity to let people know that weâreÂ dealing with the same anxiety and fears, and be moreÂ vulnerable as we continued to build that trust and openÂ communication,â he explains.
Step Five: Take a Stance
Organizations have traditionally avoided speaking outÂ in favor of political or social movements, but theseÂ days, both employees and consumers expect leadingÂ companies to assert their values by acknowledging theÂ conflict around them. In fact, research from AdzoomaÂ indicates that 63% of consumers are more likely to buyÂ from a brand that speaks about a cause they believeÂ in, compared to 17% who said it would harm theirÂ purchasing decisions.
However, one of the biggest problems with politicalÂ statements is that people often view them as ingenuine.Â The data revealed that 43.5% of people believe politicalÂ statements are just a way to jump on the bandwagon,Â and only 11.4% believed they were genuine. To avoidÂ backlash to public political statements, organizationsÂ need to ensure they are transparent and authentic.
According to Bhateja, Medidata took several steps toÂ support employees through the social unrest, electionÂ anxiety, and policy changes that occurred in the pastÂ year. Leaders issued statements internally and externallyÂ on the social injustice of the summer and the recentÂ uprising at the U.S. Capitol, and the founder and CEOÂ led a town hall where he shared his personal experienceÂ confronting these events.
âWe share these things because our internal employeesÂ need to know what we stand for and whatâs completelyÂ unacceptable, and anyone considering Medidata as anÂ employer should also know what theyâre signing up for.Â We want to make sure that we bring in people who areÂ culturally aligned in addition to functionally aligned,â heÂ explains.
Additionally, following the murder of George Floyd, theÂ company organized a conversation led by an externalÂ facilitator to give employees a space to share theirÂ feelings, begin a dialogue about what it means to beÂ an ally and promote inclusion, and learn how to haveÂ difficult conversations about race with others.
Omnitracs followed suit, immediately forming a BlackÂ employee resource group and breaking down barriers toÂ uncomfortable conversations. The companyâs leadershipÂ team organized several different virtual coffee talksÂ where external speakers could educate employees onÂ the topics of white privilege and racial injustice, as wellÂ as leading lunch-and-learn sessions and sharing sessionsÂ to help their employees become comfortable in theÂ uncomfortable.
âWe started talking to the global workforceânot justÂ the U.S. workforce but the global workforceâaboutÂ racism, social injustice, and about building a culture ofÂ inclusivity where every voice is valued and appreciated,Â and we featured not just the corporate voice but alsoÂ the unique employee voice,â says Martin. âWeâve gottenÂ really vulnerable over the past year and have really talkedÂ about uncomfortable things, not just about businessÂ performance but uncomfortable things about whatâsÂ going on in the world. And weâve just continued to beÂ very genuine and transparent in our approach.â
Step Six: Empower Managers
While communication from the top is undeniablyÂ important, managers also play a critical role in keepingÂ employees informed. They are the ones on the groundÂ sharing messages and checking in with employees on aÂ regular basis, so a transparent culture cannot succeedÂ without their engagement.
For best results, executive leaders need to model andÂ encourage the honest culture they are trying to achieve,Â serving as an example for their managers. Eller says thatÂ his team demonstrates transparency to the point whereÂ it has become an expectation that people in leadershipÂ roles need to communicate with their staff on a regularÂ basis so that information cascades through the levels ofÂ the organization.
âYou should be willing to speak up if you seeÂ opportunities for better transparency across yourÂ organization,â explains Nicolls. âInstead of calling peopleÂ out for not being transparent, try calling them inâshareÂ how you do it, the business value of it, and the resultsÂ youâve seen. That way, youâre helping them get better,Â not just telling them what theyâre doing wrong.â
Snagajob has prioritized arming managers with theÂ resources they need to succeed. According to Nicolls,Â the company shared resources about how to beÂ vulnerable to connect with teamsâa measure thatÂ fostered connectedness while also enabling managersÂ to identify employees who were struggling and developÂ interventions to help.
At Omintracs, the executive leadership team leadsÂ monthly people manager town hall meetings whereÂ they share information about company performance andÂ any new programs or initiatives. The company also hasÂ a Teams site specifically for people managers to shareÂ feedback and an online resource tool where they can stayÂ up to date on information. Another online engagementÂ tool allows employees to submit anonymous commentsÂ to their managers and leaders higher up the chain, givingÂ leaders an opportunity to respond directly to feedbackÂ and leverage employee feedback for more surgicalÂ manager instruction and coaching.
âWe make it very clear to our managers that we expectÂ they share information with their employees and giveÂ feedback to everyone back up the chain as well,â saysÂ Martin. âWe put a premium on our people managersâwe have higher expectations for them and thereforeÂ reward them differently such that they understand thatÂ they should be sharing in our success through creating aÂ culture of transparency.â
Step Seven: Seek Employee Feedback and Offer Support
For a culture to truly be transparent, communicationÂ has to be a two-way streetâand that includes givingÂ employees the floor to air any concerns. TodayâsÂ employees are dealing with incredible levels of fatigue,Â stress, and burnout that arenât likely to subside anytimeÂ soon, so organizations need to act as a support system.
âAs the pandemic went on, we started encouragingÂ people to talk more openly about tougher topicsÂ like mental health,â says Nicolls. âAfter the death ofÂ George Floyd, that commitment to transparency andÂ candor became more important than everâemployeesÂ needed to know they could safely speak about howÂ they were feeling, and the precedent weâd already setÂ around a willingness to be vulnerable at all levels of theÂ organization helped us do that.â
In addition to increasing the frequency of itsÂ communications to employees, Lhoist elevated itsÂ strategy by implementing four to five question pulseÂ surveys checking in on how employees were doingÂ personally or professionally. These saw an 80%Â participation rates, serving as a temperature check onÂ the well-being of employees and an excellent tool forÂ gathering direct feedback that could then be addressedÂ by leadership.
Bhateja has also introduced opportunities for feedback,Â leveraging business resource groups to understand theÂ needs of employees as Medidata navigates its diversity,Â inclusion, and belonging journey. In addition, theÂ company launched a change management dashboardÂ where workers could take quizzes to evaluate their stressÂ levels and view resources to help them process thatÂ change. Managers received a complementary changeÂ management tool kit that, in turn, taught them howÂ to offer support to employees through moments ofÂ dramatic change.
âThe more we can do to continue to care for and checkÂ in on our employees and how theyâre doing, how theirÂ families are doing, and how we can best continue toÂ support them, the better,â Vieau says.