Monday, July 18, 2011

Truth be told: The hidden cost of transparency.

I don’t know how she did it, but someone I was having lunch with for our first meeting, returned from the ladies with a short length of toilet paper hanging from the back of her pants. It took me a while to pluck up the courage to inform her. After that our discussion was rather uncomfortable and muted.

We’ve all experienced them – those awful moments when you are caught between telling somebody something, and keeping quiet to avoid embarrassment or even pain. It could be as trivial as a bit of spinach on their teeth, a trail of toilet paper or as serious as a moment of infidelity in an otherwise very happy marriage. Often, especially with the more serious acts, we try to put some context before full disclosure – such as “It’s not what you think!” That must be one of the most predictable lines ever for a movie scene of infidelity! The real dilemma of course is whether to confess in the interests of honesty, or whether to keep quiet to avoid hurting the other.

It shows that even universal values are not always cut and dried. More often than not one has to choose between one value and another -- invariably in circumstances where there is little time for reflection. In the marriage example, there is a clear conflict between the value of honesty and the value of caring even though good intention exists in both. One’s own character makeup and value orientation will determine the response, and either could be credibly defended – a further indication of how many permutations of behaviour exist in each human being and how inappropriate a single and generic definition of “human nature” is. The philosophical elite may argue that there is a hierarchy of values that should inform our behaviour. They may argue too that the more demanding and tougher values of justice, integrity and honesty rank higher than the softer values such as empathy, courtesy, care and love. Then, I must confess, I am a sissy. It is better to err on the side of compassion than on the side righteousness.

In my reporting days, I vehemently championed the “right to know” as the ultimate code of the profession. It was a difficult task at a time when the SABC was strongly influenced by its political masters. Still, we at the Economics department found more room than most to manoeuvre, and we consoled ourselves to some degree that there were few other media, if any that could claim complete independence from outside influences including commercial interests. Not much has really changed. Later as an employee communications consultant, I quickly learned the need for context before blurting out facile attention-grabbing headlines. But the real dilemma of the conflict between care and honesty was brought home to me when I had to inform a loved one of her pending death within a fortnight, while she was still clinging to the hope of a recovery. The most laudable intentions can be seriously challenged when consequences can be devastating to others.

clip_image002I do not want to delve into a discourse on media, but the heightened competition and the plethora of channels all scrambling for their chunk of flesh from the market carcase have at the very least led to a questioning of the values driving the profession. For example, not all will lament Rupert Murdoch’s closure of the “News of the World” as an attack on freedom of the press. Of course, if the British government had decided to close down the paper, there would have been a huge outcry, even though they could have used the same reasons of despicable information gathering techniques and some dodgy editorial.

What should be of concern to anyone who has the interest of the media at heart is the degree to which the term “the media” is as likely to be used by the public at large in a derogatory context as in an admiring one. The media certainly cannot be blamed for all social ills. They could argue that their norms have been informed by society itself; that while they may help shape society, they are also merely a reflector of that society and market demand. A doyen of South African broadcasting, the late Bryan Chilvers used to say: “We can’t tell people what to think. We can only tell them what to think about.” With the avalanche of information from a variety of sources society is finding it more difficult to avoid entrenching drawing biases and digesting the information in full and true context. Having more information does not necessarily mean being better informed.

The public media may have an excuse for their less than missionary driven approach to their audience. The same cannot be said for employee communications which today faces far more challenges than before. Escalating labour discord and unrest are evidence that these challenges are not being met and organised labour is finding the vacuum very useful for its own agenda. Employee reporting has many dimensions and I hope to share my decade or so of experience and research as a consultant in the field in the next few articles. I have always believed that the most promising arena for enhancing economic literacy is in employee reporting. Indeed, this was my main motive for leaving a well-established broadcasting career for a rather unknown field of employee developmental communications. It is in the workplace where people rub shoulders with the economic environment on a day to day basis.

Employee reporting has to be unashamedly developmental and educational in its approach. New rules on transparency and disclosure have created many pitfalls which can only be avoided if information is shared within a context fully endorsed and understood by all. It may have been easy in the past to hide “sensitive” information such as pay scales or executive remuneration. Today that is no longer so. NUMSA and other current strikers have quickly added the level of pay hikes for directors to their strike slogans. If context is not forthcoming from company leadership it will come from other sources with a different spin. Of course the problem is that you cannot defend the indefensible. Pay disparity remains highly contentious, with the “executive skills” argument the most hackneyed and challengeable.

Like in a marriage it is extremely difficult to be honest and transparent if fidelity is cherished but regularly flouted. Ultimately, trustworthy employee communication has to be underpinned by and coincide with appropriate company behaviour.

The ultimate criterion in sharing information with staff is simply that it is done in their interest and not your own; that it is empowering and enabling and not defensive. If a thorough scrutiny of intention shows this to be so, you can be forgiven for being a tad paternalistic.

Transparency and disclosure are coming at a high cost. It remains to be seen whether we will reap the benefits of a change in behaviour.

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