Transparency.

Authenticity.

Inclusion.

Why do words that symbolize really awesome things make internal communicators and employees roll their eyes so far back in their head they may just get stuck like that?

Is it that they are overused? Or is it that organizations are saying they value one thing and doing another?

Or perhaps it's because when we talk about all of these feel-good buzzwords, we are assuming that they are inherently good for employees and an organization. But when it comes to putting these values into practice, things get messy.

Organizations are scared that with just one wrong step, one mistake, or one bad tweet, a rogue employee could cause major problems that could affect the company’s reputation or bottom line.

So how do we strike the balance between employees who are hungry for transparency and inclusion and risk-averse organizations?

As the lines of internal and external communication blur, communicators everywhere are wondering: Is full transparency from leadership required for building trust and inclusion? And how do we balance transparency with the risk of leaks?

We posed these questions to our all-star panel of internal comms practitioners and experts for their take. 

1. To build trust, let employees hear it from you first


Kristen Basu, the Associate Director of Communications at NCAA is used to her organization being in the spotlight and had some insight on how to strike this balance.

“I feel that [transparency] is really important, especially for our organization because we are in the news so much. If we don't let our employees know what's going on, they will read about on espn.com or USA Today.

In recent years, we have made a concerted effort to make sure that our employees know exactly what's going on.

Recently we had a pretty high profile commission campaign. We made sure that there was an all-staff meeting immediately following. We made sure they knew what was going on every step of the way.

There are certain things, for legal reason, that you can't share with all employees, so you do have to strike a balance.

But I think as long as the intent is there, I think employees understand. But that's if you've earned their trust in the first place.”


2. If you don’t want it external, don’t make it internal


Jen Hall, the Internal Communications Manager at Novant Health knows that when it comes to healthcare organizations, privacy and trust is paramount. Her organization takes a different approach to keep leaks from becoming a problem:

“We won't put anything out to anyone unless we're comfortable with it being forwarded to the local news.

We know that we have spouses of our team members that are executives at our competitors. We know that’s a thing.

So we won't publish anything internally unless we are okay with it being forwarded or shared.

If it can't get out, we're not saying a word.”


3. Tell the truth, tell it first, and tell it all


Sean Williams, the Vice President and Practice Lead of Education and Internal Communications at True Digital Communications argues that the risks of transparency may outweigh the actual harms:

“I think the risk of doing actual harm is pretty minimal.

Unless, of course, the controversial nature of what is circulating around in your organization is going to cause a problem.

You do have to assume in this age of electronic communication that anything can become public at the drop of a hat. So tell the truth.

One crisis communication guy here in town says, "Tell the truth, tell it first, and tell it all." You want to tell as much as you can.

It goes back to the question of transparency.

You want to be as transparent as you can be. Everybody understands that there are certain topics that are off limits. Everybody gets that and I don't think it necessarily has the impact that we fear.”

 

So, when it comes down to it, how you balance transparency with the risk of leaking your internal comms is going to be unique to your company values and what kind of organization you are.

As we saw with Jen and Kristen, how healthcare organizations deal with the risk of leaks is going to be very different than how a collegiate athletics regulatory body manages risk.

No one wants to feel like the organization they work for is being dishonest or shady, but no one is expecting your organization to divulge information that they legally can’t or shouldn't either.

The point is to be as transparent as you can be and be consistent in your approach.

For example, transparency for your organization may look like being transparent about what you can and can’t share. Just make sure you are building trust with employees by letting them know what you can, first.

But keep in mind that a culture of transparency is not just good for building trust—it can increase collaboration across the organization, it breaks down information silos and boosts productivity and innovation, and could increase loyalty and retention.

Regardless of how your organization decides how to deal with the risk of leaks, more and more internal communicators are going to play a crucial role in building trust within the organization and advising leaders on how to embody an authenticity that helps employees feel good about where they work.

So next time you hear the buzzwords, transparency, authenticity, and inclusion, remember that it’s not about embodying these values perfectly, it’s about being decent, reasonable, and human in your approach.