In the age of information and instant, widespread communication, customers and companies demand transparency more than ever. We’ve seen backlash over controversial labor practices, poor treatment of customers, and gaming the system, and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is becoming a metric for success among some companies. Customers want to buy ethically sourced clothing and organic food, and go to great lengths to identify and boost companies who offer such products. Transparency is huge for building credibility in today’s marketplace, and I generally think that transparency is a strong quality for companies and employees to pursue. But what about the flip-side of transparency?
Will being transparent about your mistakes actually hurt your company or your career? The mantra tends to be, “tell the truth, and you won’t get in trouble”, or at least, the trouble will be less significant. I’m just not sure if I believe that, as all mistakes have consequences. Sure, everyone makes mistakes, but everyone also has a hard time forgiving those mistakes. Take, for example, the controversial labor practices, particularly in factories overseas. Several companies have admitted to lax enforcement of best practices, but outline a plan to take action to remedy the problem. How has this transparency about the mistake hurt their credibility? Does the plan of action fully counteract the lost trust created by the mistake? Would the company be more or less credible if they just fixed the problem, instead of going public with both the problem and the action plan? I think companies generally improve their credibility by acknowledging their mistake, and detailing a plan to fix it.
However, I find this particularly sticky when it comes to careers. How public do you make your mistakes? Do you go ahead and come to the boss with the information and your action plan, or just fix it and hope no one notices? Does it still “count” as a big mistake if you fix it with minimal cost and minimal hassle for all parties involved? There’s generally some interview question, “Tell me about a time you made a mistake. How did you fix it?” Do you take a time when it was completely a mistake on your part, or do you skirt the issue and find something less incriminating to say that you fixed? Ultimately, the interviewer does want to know what you will do when you make a mistake. Since we’re all human, we’ll all make at least one mistake, so is it better to just admit it and show that you can respond with professionalism and efficiency when you’ve made a mistake?
Being early in my career, I often question the best course of action in situations like these. At what point does complete transparency with customers and employers backfire? Where is the tipping point between transparency and credibility? (Note that I’m not talking about blatantly lying or intentionally omitting pertinent information, but rather contemplating the fine line between helpful transparency and over-sharing that backfires.)