Despite repeated calls for greater transparency within companies, there are instances in which it is appropriate to mind what you say, writes David Creelman
HR is challenging, because so much of the
work we do with people and organisations in
volves balancing in the middle rather than fol
lowing simple rules. Finding the right spot in
the middle is tough to do because it’s a mat
ter of judgement and it’s not easy to explain
why you chose one particular position in the
middle ground over another. Furthermore,
people prefer simple rules. It is easy to get up
and give a rousing speech on why clarity is
so important. It is harder to explain that some
times ambiguity can be good too—but that is
exactly what I am about to attempt.
Clarity v Ambiguity
There was a peculiar moment in Canadian pol
itics in 2000 when former Prime Minister Joe
Clark criticised what is called the Clarity Act (which
sets out the rules for when a province wants to
secede). Clark suggested that rather than clari
ty we would be better off with ambiguity.
Consultants and experts are always call
ing for clarity, but here was a seasoned polit
ical leader making a public defence of ambi
guity. Why? There are reasons ambiguity can
be helpful. One is that clarity can lock you into
an approach that may not prove to be the best
choice. Clark wanted to keep the rules around
provincial sessions ambiguous so that there
would always be room for negotiations be
tween the Federal Government and the
provinces — and that’s not such a bad idea.
Clarity can reduce our freedom of action.
Ambiguity allows different stakeholders to
interpret things in slightly different ways so
they can all be satisfied. If you write an agree
ment with a union where there is some vague
language around a contentious but largely
symbolic issue, then both sides can go back
to their stakeholders and claim they “won”.
But clarity isn’t the only simple and ap
pealing guideline that can lead us astray. We
can also be misled by the value of transparency
Transparency v Secrecy
It’s very popular these days to endorse “trans
parency” which means that, rather than keep
ing information secret, you make it public. If
you are being transparent then information
about who was at a certain meeting and what
was agreed there will be publicly available,
rather than kept to an elite group.
There are good reasons for transparency,
particularly in the political world where secre
cy is often linked to the misuse of public funds
or inappropriate legislation. So, too, in the pri
vate sector transparency can help deter bad
behaviour. And while everyone recognises there
are some things that need to be secret — no
company is going to give away trade secrets
to competitors — there is the feeling that as
long as you are being honest there is no reason
for secrecy. Alas, things are not so simple.
One reason for secrecy is that people don’t
want to (and often can’t afford to) be seen as
saying something that might be considered
stupid. If an organisation recorded all execu
tive meetings and made the recordings avail
able to all employees executives would not
speak freely. They wouldn’t take any risks.
What a statement means is dependent on con
text. Something said behind closed doors to
a small group of peers can mean something
very different than that to a wider audience.
Informality v Formality
In many English-speaking countries informality
is seen as a virtue. Why be all stuffy and for
mal? But there are reasons for making the dis
tinction between formal and informal actions.
In an informal meeting you can test out ideas
and opinions. You might say “I think our Ko
rean operation is in trouble”. Perhaps you will
find others think the same thing. Eventually
this might lead to some action. However, to
say “I think our Korean operation is in trou
ble” in a formal meeting creates a whole other
dynamic. It puts you on the spot and it puts
management on the spot. Either action has
to be taken or your idea needs to be put down.
Similarly a formal complaint about sexual ha
rassment forces HR into a certain course of ac
tion whereas an informal comment about inap
propriate behaviour can lead to a discreet
conversation that will get the person to change.
In fact one reason the role of the ombudsman
exists is to create a semi-formal place to pursue
issues that cannot be resolved appropriately
through either formal or informal channels.
Finding the Balance
It is important to remember that ambiguity,
secrecy, and formality have important roles
to play in organisations. The wise HR man
ager is one who understands the subtleties
involved and seeks out the right balance.
David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research, providing writing, research and commentary on human-capital
management. He is investing much of his time in helping HR VPs report to the Board about human capital.
He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org