The Price of Secrecy

The most comprehensive, carefully thought-out company policies are basically rendered void if they’re not enforced.

And, moreover, not letting employees know that violations of these rules are being dealt with can actually have a pretty corrosive effect on an organization over time.

So says a new study from researchers at the University of California, Irvine, who used questionnaire data from “a large U.S. governmental agency” to find that “lower employee trust with tenure is incrementally linearly lower over the course of employment, not the result of an early breach of the psychological contract.”

This occurs, the authors continue, “for employees at all hierarchical levels, but is steepest for non-supervisory employees, suggesting that employees [lacking] information about policy enforcement may be driving this phenomenon.”

In other, plainer words, your people want to know that policies are being enforced, and keeping them in the dark about enforcement proceedings only serves to chip away at employees’ trust in the organization.

“The decline happens incrementally over the span of an employee’s tenure with their organization when policy enforcement is kept secret from other employees,” says lead author Jone Pearce, dean’s professor of organization and management at the UCI Paul Merage School of Business, in a statement.

“Secret proceedings weaken, rather than support, employees’ perceptions that policy enforcement is taken seriously, which then works to undermine trust in their organizations.”

Unlike legal trial proceedings, the authors write, most companies’ policy enforcement proceedings “lack the fundamental feature of due process procedures: They are not open.”

In addition, they note, organizational secrecy can spread as employees “assume secrecy is what the organization expects, and so they withhold information that they should be sharing, potentially causing additional harm to organizations and employees alike.”

While the company might contend that keeping policy proceedings hush-hush is done in the interest of privacy, being open about enforcement proceedings actually “helps protect against someone making false charges and allows all employees to know that violations have consequences,” according to Pearce.

“Openness keeps those rendering judgement honest, while secrecy undermines accountability. Hiding enforcement proceedings may help a company or its employees avoid embarrassment; however, it comes at a price. And, that price is a loss of trust in the authorities and their policies.”

And, compounding the problem is the possibility that this skepticism might trickle down from veteran workers to more junior colleagues who are still forming impressions of their employer.

“Understanding why employees with more tenure trust their organizations less also has important theoretical and practical implications for human resource management practices,” the authors point out. “Longer tenured employees are often sources of guidance for newer employees on understanding organizational values and expectations, and may spread their low trust to their less experienced co-workers, further undermining others’ organizational trust.”

 

 

 

 

 

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