February 14, 2022

“Transparency” Should be More Than a Workplace Buzzword

Here’s what workplace transparency really means—and why it matters to the long-term health and wealth of your business.

“In the interest of full transparency…”

If my LinkedIn feed is any indication, C-suite execs are embracing transparency talk with the passion of my Foxhound howling out the window, which she does approximately 72 startling times a day. The crazy part is that many executives clearly don’t mean it—and neither does my dog, who, when actually faced with a stranger, tucks her tail and resorts to throwing side-eye.

To be clear: I’m a huge fan of transparency.

I’m also a fan of using the right words to express your intentions. So if you don’t actually intend to be transparent (which, arguably, is totally your call), maybe just… quit freaking talking about it?

Back when Jelly shoes were the rage, I was in kindergarten with this sociopath kid named Adam.

Adam had dad hair and was always cutting ahead of the other kids in the cafeteria line.

One day, Adam was mid-brag about what a good reader he was (bless his heart), when he noticed I was holding a book. More accurately, I was reading the book, because I was an early reader and also I didn’t want anyone to talk to me.

“You can’t read,” jeered Adam. “Your lips aren’t even moving. I can read, but you’re dumb.”

So I handed him my book.

“Okay,” I said. “Read to us.” And I stared at him like only an introspective five-year-old can.

Adam stared blankly at me. “I don’t feel like it,” he said.

Trans-f*cking-parent, ADAM.

Here’s the thing: transparency isn’t a verb. It’s not something you do; it’s something you are. For better or for worse.

Trust: your core values aren’t fooling anyone. If you’re not living a genuine lifestyle of honesty and openness, or if you’re not extending that lifestyle into your work environment, your employees will know it.

A high-caliber employee can sniff out lip service the way my dog sniffs out crumbs of cheese under the kitchen cabinets: they know when you’re offering up something worthwhile, and they sure as heck know when you’re saying “transparency” but doling out bullsh*t.

So what does it look like to “lead with transparency”?

If maintaining transparency throughout your company is a priority to you, then these are the practices that legitimately lend transparency to your operation and make your team feel seen, heard, and valued:

#1: Workplace transparency means welcoming clarifying questions (and answering them with clarity, too)

I once had a boss who introduced himself to me as “a WHY person.” At first I thought, yes! A purpose-driven leader! Turns out the guy had merely watched Simon Sinek’s TED Talk and mindlessly adopted a new term. He knew as much about why we did what we did as my dog knows about why I was pissed when she ate my lipstick. (She’s still bummed that I took that away from her.)

To lead with transparency, you really, truly, actually need to know the WHY behind your team’s work.

If it’s just to make lots of money, fine. Own it. If it’s to change the world for the better, then make sure they’re actually doing the work that gets you there.

And when an employee has questions, don’t just repeat your company values. Give them an answer that’s true, helpful, and concise. That’s how you build respect and loyalty.

#2: Workplace transparency means having open discussions about compensation

In most cultures, it’s totally taboo to talk about your salary—which is ironic considering we all have one and it impacts literally every aspect of our lives. Buffer, however, is an example of a company where salaries are revealed openly via a straightforward formula that accounts for job type, seniority, experience, and location. This empowers workers to know that they’re being paid equitably, and it provides them with a clear path to career growth.

According to the New York Times, “Workers are more motivated when salaries are transparent.”

Among other downsides, pay secrecy has been shown to enable racial and gender biases that ultimately create feelings of job insecurity and distrust throughout the company.

At a previous job, I was explicitly told to “never discuss your salary with your colleagues,” which, as it turns out, was 100% illegal according to Monster.com. This massive overstep by HR only served to sow further distrust throughout my team, who already suspected that compensation was inconsistent at best.

#3: Workplace transparency means no-hassle mental health days

I’ve had a lot of jobs in my life but a grand total of only three managers who understood the occasional need for a mental health day. (Anecdotal fact: they were all women. Heather, Rachel, and Betsy: I’m talkin’ about y’all. Cheers!)

Sure, you’ve always been able to take a mental health day by calling in sick or using vacation days (if you’re lucky enough to have them); but isn’t it so much better to have access to the right language?

When mental health days are ignored, mocked, or denied, employees are forced to lie in order to take the time they need to rest, heal, and return to work fully charged.

It’s good to take mental health days. It’s good to encourage your employees to take mental health days.

NPR recently reported that the Illinois school system will begin allowing five excused, no-questions-asked mental healthy days per school year beginning in January 2022. And if kids need the occasional mental health day, surely adults need the same.

#4: Workplace transparency means dropping the toxic positivity

Toxic positivity is when you dismiss an individual’s pain and instead respond with aggressive optimism.

I love Refinery29’s description of toxic positivity as “a sort of unintentional gaslighting – which, whether the individual realises it or not, ends up stopping someone short of expressing how they truly feel.”

This doesn’t mean employers need to be therapists to their employees; but it does mean that it’s damaging and deeply unhelpful to insist on a positive outlook when a situation undeniably sucks.

Whether an employee is struggling with a personal issue or a work concern, the best response is one that simply accepts and acknowledges the individual’s feelings. In a professional environment, it’s totally okay to say, “I know this is tough, but we do have to finish this project. How can I better support you through this?” or “I’m so sorry you’re going through that. Would a day off to rest be beneficial right now?”

If that sounds too accommodating or too “touchy-feely” to you, maybe you should study these 8 Habits of Highly Empathetic Leaders.

What’s that? You don’t have employees? This is still totally relevant to you.

Running a business with transparency demonstrates genuine respect for your team, whether your “team” is a gaggle of employees or a hard-won list of valuable clients. It demands that you prioritize clarity and honesty in communication, and it asks you to choose vulnerability and own your decisions. True transparency proves that you see your professional community as necessary contributors to your business’s growth and success.

Workplace transparency is a bold promise, rife with uncertainty, but richly rewarding to those who practice it.

Are you ready for that?

As for my kindergarten frenemy Adam, I can only hope that he learned to be a little less transparently narcissistic, though it’s unlikely. He’s probably an executive in a corner office now. Or he’s in prison. Maybe even both.

Cover photo by @okeykat

  • Dammit you are SO RIGHT. I’d much prefer for someone to say, “I don’t know, I’ll need to dig into that some more,” than to make up a totally ridiculous answer or brush the question aside altogether. Maybe it’s an ego thing. I know it is for me! It can be embarrassing to “not know” if you’re SUPPOSED to be the knower-of-all. So leaders have to practice humility if they’re ever going to admit that they don’t have all the answers. Thoughts?

  • Can you PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE start an amazing company so we can all work for you?! A million times YES to all of these points.

  • Damn – I’m not sure I can love and appreciate this more. Totally nailed so many frustrations I’ve had in the workplace and those I’ve heard from peers. I would love to read your take on authenticity vs transparency in the workplace as I’ve seen those two principles equally abused but also incorrectly comingled.

  • I wonder about why there isn’t more transparency in leader’s when they don’t know something. control I wish that more leaders would admit that and ask us lowly plebeians for thoughts. When I hear a boss or someone in seniority over me say, “You know what? I don’t know.” I think that’s huge. It helps give more space for the rest of us who might not know either and that it’s okay to not know things. If that makes sense?

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