How Much To Tell Your Employees: Balancing Openness & Appropriateness

Finding the balance between transparency and filtering information is something that even senior executives struggle with.   It could be turf squabbles between your boss and their peers, it could be a possible merger or office move, or it could be financial information about how the organization is doing.  What should you share with employees, and what should you withhold or filter?  Here are a few guidelines that can help you decide what makes the most sense for a particular situation.

How will the employees knowing the information affect the organization?

It is very hard to put the organization, especially if it's a big, somewhat faceless monolith, above the individuals that you work with day in and day out.  However, as a manager you are part of the monolith, and your first obligation is to the organization.  If you believe that the organization is doing employees wrong in some way, you may decide you don't care about putting the company first, but be aware that you might be wading into legally-dubious waters if you share information that you shouldn't.  

If there is something that the organization definitely does not want to share, such as impending layoffs, but employees are asking you about rumors they've heard about it, then your best bet is to go to your boss and find out what information, if any, you can share with the employees given that they've already caught wind of the situation.  You may need to just tell your employees, "I'm not able to discuss that right now, but I will share with you what I can, when I can," and then follow through.  

Can the employees do anything differently based on knowing this?

If the employees can do their jobs more effectively and/or successfully by knowing this information, then it makes sense to tell them.  For example, if your boss and the head of another department your team is working with are having a squabble that affects your team's work, it might help them plan more effectively if they know the broad outlines of the issue.  If both bosses are going to want to approve the product, that needs to be built into the timeline.  

However, if it's just a case that your boss doesn't like the other department head and it doesn't change anything about the work, then it might not make sense to share the information. Where this gets tricky is in situations where you know there is the possibility of a negative organizational change such as layoffs or pay freezes, and you also know that an employee is about to make a significant decision like buying a house based on the idea that they will be with the company indefinitely.  

In a case like that, try to find information that is relevant but also okay to share, such as last quarter's results, and use that as a way to say, "you know, we've missed our targets for the last three quarters and the board is meeting soon - it might make sense to hold off on any big decisions right now because we don't know what they're going to do in reaction to those bad results."  

That way, you're not disclosing information that you shouldn't and raising anxiety levels among all employees, but you are helping the employee put known information into a context that will help them make a better, more informed decision.

How will the information affect morale?

If the information you are considering sharing will negatively impact morale, it's worth spending some time to figure out the best way to present it.  It doesn't make sense to withhold information if employees need to operate differently, but the way in which you present it matters.  

For example, say your boss's boss doesn't think that your team's main focus is valuable to the company, and that you should be doing something else.  You can't avoid conveying that the team needs to change focus, but you don't have to present it as "great-grand-boss thinks that the things you've been working so hard on for months are pointless."  You can present it as "great-grand-boss would like us to shift our focus from X to Y, at least for the immediate future."   If employees push back, convey the positives of the new direction rather than the issues your boss's boss has with the current direction.  

If you focus on the positive and the future, employees will follow your lead.  If you try to bond with them by saying, "yeah I know it's nonsensical," they will not be very motivated to do what they need to do.  This seems very obvious when written out like this, but in the moment, there is always a temptation to say what we really think so that employees know that we know that something from above is a bad decision.  It feels more authentic.  However, your role is to be an effective translator and ambassador between your team and upper management.  

Deciding how much, and what and when to share information with employees is an ongoing process.  The answers are rarely clear-cut, even with guidelines like those above.  My personal philosophy is to err on the side of over-sharing, especially as a front-line manager.  The higher up you go, the more impactful information becomes, so if you are higher up you may want to err in the other direction.  Recognize that sharing and not sharing are both "information" to  your employees, and choose accordingly.

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