Embracing a culture of transparency empowers both employees and organizations alike. Here, five CHROs share their best practices.
By Marta Chmielowicz
Trust is the foundation of any healthy relationship, offering a bedrock of security and loyalty that weathers thick and thin. This extends to employer-employee relationships, but to get it right, organizations need to embrace truth, transparency, and vulnerability. Only then can connections between employees and managers strengthen, empowering people and businesses to work better together.
According to Naveen Bhateja, executive vice president and CHRO of Medidata Solutions, the trend toward greater transparency has grown tremendously in the past four to five years in response to significant volatility and uncertainty in the world.
“When you have conditions like that, employees often look to organizations to step up and be more open about how they feel in terms of what’s happening externally,” he says. “For example, during a town hall meeting over the summer held to discuss social injustice, one of our founders discussed his own experience growing up as an immigrant. A number of employees shared how much they appreciated his transparency and vulnerability. It was an experience and sentiment many employees could relate to.”
Transparency is more than just a buzzword; it requires an organization-wide commitment to honest and open communication, and constant diligence to ensure trust and accountability.
“When I think of organizations that are really successful at transparency, I’ve always seen that it starts at the top,” says Candace Nicolls, senior vice president of people and workplace at Snagajob. “In high performing cultures, employees take their cues from those around them, and when they look up, you want them to see behavior that’s reflective of your values and beliefs. It also takes consistency. If employees can’t trust that every message you deliver is truthful, that perception of transparency is gone.”
According to Steve Eller, CHRO of Beacon Health System, maintaining open and honest communication with employees can help reduce anxiety while limiting the spread of harmful rumors and false information that could potentially damage company reputation and employee confidence. By embracing a culture of transparency, Eller says that companies can lead with 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 transparency is communicating organizational goals to employees. Often, executive leaders struggle to realize their vision for the business because they fail to share that vision with their workforce. Omnitracs CHRO Stacey Martin says that companies need to start by establishing a shared understanding of where the organization is headed. Then, leaders need to clearly outline their expectations and connect the dots between larger organizational goals and the day-to-day contributions of employees.
“A lot of times, companies and employees struggle because there’s a set of goals known at the executive level and board level and there’s a different set of goals published to the employees,” she explains. “Let’s be very transparent with our employees and share with them the good, the bad, and the ugly. Let’s share with them where we’re going, where we think our challenges are, and let’s ask them for help. Let’s make sure they understand that they’re here for a reason and that we need them to help us all achieve our collective vision.”
By being upfront about goals, expectations, and challenges, organizations can empower their workforce to perform at their very best.
Step Two: Engage Employees in Key Decisions
Part of aligning employees with organizational goals is keeping them informed and involved in key decisions. At Medidata, managers play a crucial role in sharing the rationale around business decisions and involving employees in the decision-making as much as possible.
For example, the company’s leadership engages its business resource groups to determine which programs they will prioritize to drive a more inclusive culture. “We also share engagement scores with engagement council members and ask that each council select a priority item to work on so that they can be change agents and influence leadership,” Bhateja.
As a result of this approach, Medidata’s employee engagement survey recorded above-benchmark scores for employee involvement in decision-making—a very unusual feat for a high-tech, hyper growth company that makes decisions quickly.
Omnitracs also recognizes the importance of employee involvement in decision-making; the company’s workforce played a key role in the decision to permanently close five offices following the shift to remote work. Martin says she approached the decision by gathering employee feedback about the experience of working from home, informing employees of the operating costs that would be saved by the closures, and outlining a clear plan showing how the money would be reinvested back into people programs.
“I was very transparent and told them that I could close the office and save a million and a half dollars to the bottom line and reinvest that money to people programs, rewards strategies, and additional headcount where teams were potentially strapped,” she explains. “We also rolled out a program where we helped employees get what they needed to be successful to work from home permanently so that if they no longer had the option to come back into the office, that they were comfortable working from home.”
Employees were encouraged to provide feedback throughout the process via pulse surveys through the employee engagement platform and corporate Intranet, as well as Microsoft Teams chats for each location that was being closed.
“We leveraged technology heavily to make sure we were connecting with our employees so that they felt like they had all the information they needed and they had a chance to give us feedback throughout the process,” Martin says.
Step Three: Acknowledge Struggles
A culture of transparency requires immense vulnerability, openness, and availability from leadership teams. Leaders have to not only share their goals and aspirations, but also the areas where they’re struggling—and that can be a hard pill to swallow.
“Being really transparent with people requires leadership courage that will allow you to admit your own failures and hurtles,” says Martin. “Don’t go forward and create a transparent culture unless you’re willing to be vulnerable, ask for help, admit failures, and apologize and be humble if you let the team down.”
This is especially important when organizations face difficult circumstances, particularly when cutting wages or headcount. Durell Vieau, global HR director of Lhoist, says that when facing such obstacles, leaders should consistently communicate the financial state of the business and inform employees of any measures being taken to control costs. They also need to ensure that they are delicate, respectful, and compassionate in their communications to take care of those who are impacted as well as those who are not.
However, there is a fine line to walk. While it is good to be vulnerable and open, Bhateja emphasizes that leaders should exercise discretion to make sure the information they are sharing does not backfire or overwhelm employees.
“You never want to be in an information overload situation where people are second guessing everything that’s done by management or leadership because you’ve been way too transparent,” he explains. “You have to consider how people will benefit from the information that you’re sharing. It really needs to help make people’s lives easier, simpler, better, and more informed as they continue to execute.”
Step Four: Leverage a Variety of Communication Channels
The shift to remote work has challenged many organizations’ ability to engage and communicate with their workforce. As massive team meetings become a thing of the past, companies are turning to virtual tools and getting creative with the ways they share information with employees.
“You have to use multiple means for getting the message out,” says Eller. “Just because you’ve put it in one place doesn’t mean that everyone is going to see it and you’ll get full comprehension by the organization. In terms of best practices, we have not found one mechanism that’s the be-all end-all format—it’s a combination of methods.”
Leveraging a variety of communication tools was especially important for Beacon Health System in the early stages of the pandemic as hospitals struggled to remain staffed and supplied under the strain of COVID-19. Eller says that his company posted graphics and information about the availability of PPE in six or seven different formats to avoid rumors and ensure that the workforce knew they would be supported and protected in the work environment.
In addition to spreading information, a multi-pronged communication approach is also essential for making leaders more accessible. Vieau says that her company’s remote communications strategy post-COVID involved a major push to create an open-door policy with senior leaders. While the company relied on large face-to-face team meetings in the past, it quickly transitioned to virtual employee forums via the Microsoft Teams Live Event platform; recorded messages from company leaders; and monthly Q&A sessions addressing employee concerns.
Likewise, Beacon Health System developed five-to-10-minute “Lap with a Leader” recordings, wherein a communications representative joins an executive leader for one lap around a track in Beacon’s health and fitness facility while discussing the state of the business and answering employee questions. These videos are then shared through the “Workplace” online communication tool, a Facebook-style platform for employees.
Snagajob implemented a similar approach, delivering twice-weekly messages from the CEO on the company’s Intranet that addressed changes in the market, feedback from customers and the board, and sources of information used to make business decisions.
“We’ve scaled the frequency of those messages up and down as needed in response to what we’ve heard from employees,” says Nicolls. “Those messages are also structured to balance business impacts with go forward strategies, as well as recognition of the challenges our employees are facing as people, and they’ve been incredibly effective.”
Medidata has gone one step further, encouraging leaders to mingle with employees by participating in employee engagement events like celebrations or yoga classes to build camaraderie and trust. During the initial spike of COVID-19, Bhateja says that executive leaders posted videos on the company Intranet sharing how they were coping with the lockdown and offering words of support and encouragement.
“We felt it was important for us to share these messages as videos so that they could be more personal, and it was also an opportunity to let people know that we’re dealing with the same anxiety and fears, and be more vulnerable as we continued to build that trust and open communication,” he explains.
Step Five: Take a Stance
Organizations have traditionally avoided speaking out in favor of political or social movements, but these days, both employees and consumers expect leading companies to assert their values by acknowledging the conflict around them. In fact, research from Adzooma indicates that 63% of consumers are more likely to buy from a brand that speaks about a cause they believe in, compared to 17% who said it would harm their purchasing decisions.
However, one of the biggest problems with political statements is that people often view them as ingenuine. The data revealed that 43.5% of people believe political statements are just a way to jump on the bandwagon, and only 11.4% believed they were genuine. To avoid backlash to public political statements, organizations need to ensure they are transparent and authentic.
According to Bhateja, Medidata took several steps to support employees through the social unrest, election anxiety, and policy changes that occurred in the past year. Leaders issued statements internally and externally on the social injustice of the summer and the recent uprising at the U.S. Capitol, and the founder and CEO led a town hall where he shared his personal experience confronting these events.
“We share these things because our internal employees need to know what we stand for and what’s completely unacceptable, and anyone considering Medidata as an employer should also know what they’re signing up for. We want to make sure that we bring in people who are culturally aligned in addition to functionally aligned,” he explains.
Additionally, following the murder of George Floyd, the company organized a conversation led by an external facilitator to give employees a space to share their feelings, begin a dialogue about what it means to be an ally and promote inclusion, and learn how to have difficult conversations about race with others.
Omnitracs followed suit, immediately forming a Black employee resource group and breaking down barriers to uncomfortable conversations. The company’s leadership team organized several different virtual coffee talks where external speakers could educate employees on the topics of white privilege and racial injustice, as well as leading lunch-and-learn sessions and sharing sessions to help their employees become comfortable in the uncomfortable.
“We started talking to the global workforce—not just the U.S. workforce but the global workforce—about racism, social injustice, and about building a culture of inclusivity where every voice is valued and appreciated, and we featured not just the corporate voice but also the unique employee voice,” says Martin. “We’ve gotten really vulnerable over the past year and have really talked about uncomfortable things, not just about business performance but uncomfortable things about what’s going on in the world. And we’ve just continued to be very genuine and transparent in our approach.”
Step Six: Empower Managers
While communication from the top is undeniably important, managers also play a critical role in keeping employees informed. They are the ones on the ground sharing messages and checking in with employees on a regular basis, so a transparent culture cannot succeed without their engagement.
For best results, executive leaders need to model and encourage the honest culture they are trying to achieve, serving as an example for their managers. Eller says that his team demonstrates transparency to the point where it has become an expectation that people in leadership roles need to communicate with their staff on a regular basis so that information cascades through the levels of the organization.
“You should be willing to speak up if you see opportunities for better transparency across your organization,” explains Nicolls. “Instead of calling people out for not being transparent, try calling them in—share how you do it, the business value of it, and the results you’ve seen. That way, you’re helping them get better, not just telling them what they’re doing wrong.”
Snagajob has prioritized arming managers with the resources they need to succeed. According to Nicolls, the company shared resources about how to be vulnerable to connect with teams—a measure that fostered connectedness while also enabling managers to identify employees who were struggling and develop interventions to help.
At Omintracs, the executive leadership team leads monthly people manager town hall meetings where they share information about company performance and any new programs or initiatives. The company also has a Teams site specifically for people managers to share feedback and an online resource tool where they can stay up to date on information. Another online engagement tool allows employees to submit anonymous comments to their managers and leaders higher up the chain, giving leaders an opportunity to respond directly to feedback and leverage employee feedback for more surgical manager instruction and coaching.
“We make it very clear to our managers that we expect they share information with their employees and give feedback to everyone back up the chain as well,” says Martin. “We put a premium on our people managers—we have higher expectations for them and therefore reward them differently such that they understand that they should be sharing in our success through creating a culture of transparency.”
Step Seven: Seek Employee Feedback and Offer Support
For a culture to truly be transparent, communication has to be a two-way street—and that includes giving employees the floor to air any concerns. Today’s employees are dealing with incredible levels of fatigue, stress, and burnout that aren’t likely to subside anytime soon, so organizations need to act as a support system.
“As the pandemic went on, we started encouraging people to talk more openly about tougher topics like mental health,” says Nicolls. “After the death of George Floyd, that commitment to transparency and candor became more important than ever—employees needed to know they could safely speak about how they were feeling, and the precedent we’d already set around a willingness to be vulnerable at all levels of the organization helped us do that.”
In addition to increasing the frequency of its communications to employees, Lhoist elevated its strategy by implementing four to five question pulse surveys checking in on how employees were doing personally or professionally. These saw an 80% participation rates, serving as a temperature check on the well-being of employees and an excellent tool for gathering direct feedback that could then be addressed by leadership.
Bhateja has also introduced opportunities for feedback, leveraging business resource groups to understand the needs of employees as Medidata navigates its diversity, inclusion, and belonging journey. In addition, the company launched a change management dashboard where workers could take quizzes to evaluate their stress levels and view resources to help them process that change. Managers received a complementary change management tool kit that, in turn, taught them how to offer support to employees through moments of dramatic change.
“The more we can do to continue to care for and check in on our employees and how they’re doing, how their families are doing, and how we can best continue to support them, the better,” Vieau says.