Can you handle transparency?

transparentAn article in the Orlando Sentinel caught my attention. It reports that a leasing company has stopped the process of making tenants agree in the lease to not post bad social media reviews, at the penalty of $10,000.  Wow!  I must be naïve because I just cannot fathom anyone making such a business decision. Well, it’s good they stopped it.

Reading a little deeper, apparently the leasing company was concerned about a “’growing trend’ of real estate renters posting unjustified and defamatory reviews on social media in order to negotiate lower rents.” Okay, that is certainly unfair, if that is happening.  Trying to control what people write on social media, however, is a little bit like trying to bail out a sinking canoe.  If someone wants to write a negative review and not pay a penalty, they’ll find a way to do it, even if it means getting cousin Gertrude to write the review.

Later in my inbox, I saw the headline “Three Reasons CEOs Can’t Ignore Glassdoor.” If you’re not familiar, Glassdoor.com is a website where employees and former employees can post anonymous or identified reviews on companies for which they work. Prospective employees use this site to help them make decisions about applying or accepting a job. I like the format – each review identifies “pros,” “cons,” and “advice to leadership.” Those three questions challenge the writer to think, and makes it easier to tell when someone is just plain disgruntled.

Transparency via social media will only get stronger, and smart organizations will learn how to handle the increasing transparency. A friend who owns a renovation business carefully reads and responds to every comment on Angie’s List. If the comments are positive, he thanks the writer. If not, he offers to fix. He has had reviewers update their comments because he has taken them seriously and fixed whatever was wrong. That’s a good thing.

This transparency presents a challenge for businesses and like every challenge, some will respond authentically and own the problem. Others will play ostrich or try to get around it, as this Orlando leasing company tried.

How to avoid playing ostrich?  Besides the obvious – accept and embrace transparency because it’s here to stay – there are some preparations that can turn transparency into effective action.

Have a dialogue about transparency at the executive level

Each member of a leadership team probably brings a different level of comfort with transparency. Some may be quite open to feedback while others may not.  Some may feel that addressing feedback head on is appropriate, while others prefer more cautious methods.

This is a dialogue you must have. The executive leadership team has to be on the same page so that they can effectively lead the organization to approach transparency in a way that makes most sense. This provides a cohesive and holistic policy, if you will, to which all executives align.

Prepare leadership

If executives have different levels of comfort with transparency, multiply that exponentially for those leading the workforce.

Share the outcome of the leadership dialogue with all leaders of the organization, and set expectations for their approach to transparency.  If a negative social media comment goes viral, you will not have time to adequately prepare leaders to respond to the questions they will get from their employees.  If, however, you have prepared your leaders to respond to feedback, you have a much better chance of providing a singular, cohesive message.

Prepare the workforce

Social media comments impact not only the workforce, but the customers as well. One healthcare organization made an executive decision to publicly post their quality statistics – falls, infections, etc. – as a show of transparency to their patients.

They neglected to educate the clinical staff on responding to patients who freak out if they perceive the numbers to be less than adequate. Those employees who had their own concerns about safety measures in the hospital commiserated with the patients, fueling anxiety and fear.

What makes an effective response?

Responding appropriately to negative information is sometimes counterintuitive, particularly if the responder agrees with the less than positive perspective. Providing the “why” is important.

A customer-facing employee needs to understand (and believe) a.) the organization’s goals and commitment to transparency, b.) the importance of supporting the organization to the customer and c.) effective ways to respond to negative feedback.

This is not communicated in a class, but by the front-line leaders through role modeling and through coaching.

If the executives have agreed upon their approach, set expectations for their leadership in carrying out that approach, and prepared their leaders and workforce to respond, they will have the best chance to get in front of social media. It’s here. Better to prepare than to be caught off guard.

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