Beyond Transparency: Can A Culture Of 100% Honesty Work?

New research shows that employees value honesty more than any perks. Take a look at how these companies have instilled a culture of candor.

Beyond Transparency: Can A Culture Of 100% Honesty Work?
[Photo: Flickr user DaveBleasdale]

It’s a scenario that would make anyone sweat.


The big-data team at Moz, a marketing software company, was working on a large project to rebuild the systems behind the company’s web index for almost two years. Some of Moz’s engineers had privately expressed their worries about the progress and lack of results to CEO Sarah Bird.

At any other company, even a private conversation would have been tough, and the whole episode may well have resulted in a failure of the project and a dent in morale. Instead, Moz founder Rand Fishkin says they took the concern public. During a two-hour meeting last week, senior staff were invited to ask the big-data team questions. He tells Fast Company, “It was a great session, and I think everyone walked away feeling more confident in the team and project, as well as more trusting of the individuals involved.”

Fishkin says this wasn’t a onetime experiment. “We’ve made it part of our daily processes and part of our manager/employee training to ask for not just honesty, but the whole truth,” he says.

The Moz staff isn’t alone in their pursuit of honest communications. In fact, a new survey from 15Five indicates that 85% of employees are unsatisfied with the quality of communication in their workplace. According to the findings from over 1,000 full-time employees across the U.S., 81% would rather join a company that values “open communication” than one that offers perks such as top health plans, free food, and gym memberships.

15Five founder David Hassell says that the impetus to do the survey grew out of anecdotal conversations about what really makes great teams and companies. “When it comes down to it, it’s the manager/employee relationship,” he asserts. Like any good relationship, when there is open communication and trust, a lot of positive things can happen, Hassell says.


15Five had its own dustup over a lack of transparency not long ago. An employee who’d been with the company for almost a year wasn’t really up to the tasks she was set to complete. Unfortunately, her previous jobs had taught her not to open up. “It led her to believe it was risky to share weaknesses and safer to put on a front that she had it all under control,” Hassell explains. “We only had a candid discussion about this in the final two months of our working together, when it was clear we weren’t getting the results we had hoped,” he adds. That employee was let go, says Hassell. “I speculate that if she’d been more open earlier on, we may have had a different outcome.”

Beyond designated feedback loops, is it possible to instill and enforce a culture of honesty among employees?

Here’s a look at several companies who are making it work.

Never Hide Bad News

Rochelle DiRe, chief people officer at Quirky, says that the company’s core values were written in the very early days by CEO and founder Ben Kaufman, and transparency was included. Asked if there was a difference between honesty and transparency, DiRe offers: “Transparency is the surfacing of data and events; honesty is about your interpretation and desires. We are committed to being open about both.”

That includes never hiding bad news, she explains. “We ask our employees to always state their opinions, even if controversial.”


To further encourage honesty and transparency, Kaufman holds all-hands staff meetings every week, and a town-hall meeting with the entire community quarterly. DiRe says, “He will not end the meetings until all questions are answered, whatever they may be. We feel that modeling transparency and openness is what inspires the same in our people.”

Form A Culture of Candor Team

At innovation consulting firm Kalypso, Jenna Dudevoir says, “We live by our ‘Culture of Candor.’” As a virtual firm, many on its staff of over 200 work together exclusively over the phone, email, and IM from across North America, Europe, and Latin America. “You can imagine the effects that lack of transparency and honesty could have in a virtual business,” says Dudevoir, global vice president of marketing.

Dudevoir says that Kalypso first made its Culture of Candor a strategic imperative in 2012 after doubling in size and planning to continue to grow at the same pace.

To keep up with such rapid growth and indoctrinate new employees in the culture, Dudevoir says the company took steps to implement a performance development system, formal counselor-counselee relationships, and a continuous 360 feedback process, including upward feedback for leadership and client feedback, among other initiatives.

The company also designated a Culture of Candor week featuring stories, newsletters, and tips. They also host panels, developed a partner advisory council, and created videos to further encourage conversation around honesty and transparency.


Train to Be More Honest

Joe Silverman, owner of New York Computer Help, an IT computer-service provider, says, “Our motto is total transparency, and I strive to promote this from the staff level through the customer.”

Silverman believes that you cannot hide information or be dishonest behind the scenes and still be honest with the customer, and vice versa. If a computer technician started cutting corners, such as not installing all the screws for a MacBook screen replacement, “He would be terminated on the spot,” Silverman declares. “It may sound extreme, but if you don’t have trust once, you can’t expect to have it at all.” 

Silverman says his staff goes through “excessive training” to promote honesty. One example: “Any time a repair comes in, we ask who hasn’t done this before,” he says.  An honest answer is expected to follow. “Whoever says no gets a crash-test training of how to do it,” he says. The result of being honest is helpful training to sharpen necessary skills so no one has to fudge their expertise.

When It’s Okay Not To Be Transparent (But Still Be Honest)

Jono Anzalone, a division disaster executive at American Red Cross for 10 regional chapters in 11 Midwestern states, which together have over 116 full-time staff and 5,700 volunteers, adopted 15Five for the employees and managers in his own division, and the tool has spread organically to some other area divisions as well.

Yet Anzalone realizes that the team cannot rely solely on the form. “I often take information learned in my weekly report from my team and follow up with them one-on-one to explore and address root causes.” 


Anzalone is reluctant to use the word enforce when it comes to honesty. “I would pose that the policy surrounding honesty starts from the one senior leadership sets for the organization,” he says. Yet he recognizes that as a leader, there are times when you cannot be 100% transparent, but can still be honest. 

“An extreme example is when we are dealing with a disaster survivor’s confidential story,” he explains. While a volunteer or employee may want to know about the disaster survivor’s story, he may not choose to be 100% transparent in order to protect that client. “I can be honest with my employee or volunteer, explaining why I am unable to be 100% transparent,” Anzalone says. “A good leader must balance an environment of ‘need to know’ versus ‘nice to know’ when dealing with client confidentiality that may impact lives,” he adds. 

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.