“You can’t handle the truth!”. Many of us remember that famous line shouted so eloquently by Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men. In recent weeks I’ve had several discussions with peers and colleagues that ask whether this quote is accurate when it comes to sharing information with employees. One example: sharing the results of an employee survey.

Here is the scenario. Assume you have just conducted an annual global survey of employees for a global company. The workforce is slightly cynical about the process due to uneven communication and lack of visible follow-up during previous surveys.  Sharing the highlights of the results – and focusing on driving tangible changes based on the findings – is a given. So is using all relevant communication channels, including regional and local managers, to cascade the information. But here’s where it gets less certain. Would you make most the data available to all employees, to peruse or compare at their leisure? Should you allow them to review customized reports with breakdowns by country, function or role? Would all this result in information overload and competitive sniping or foster a new sense of transparency and trust?

Here’s where we came down on this issue. Given the latent cynicism of employees regarding surveys in particular (and management in general) the default should always be to share information – or at least make it available – unless there is a good reason not to. In the case of surveys, one could reasonably argue the information is better presented with the proper context and with the right level of detail and local customization. It also helps to have key leaders take a personal role in the communication process to emphasize their personal interest and accountability. But it also sends an important message if in addition to the proactive communication process the company allows any employee to access relevant data or reports (for example on a dedicated website.)

There should be limits to this transparency, however. The obvious one is to protect the confidentiality of respondents and not present detailed data that allows close comparisons beyond (or really below) the major functions or regions, since that might create dissension and/or invite criticisms of specific teams or managers. The other is to ensure employees understand the information is confidential and not for external distribution. But beyond that the onus should be on opening the windows, so to speak.

Many discussions involving the issue of transparency with employees implicitly suggest most employees are not capable of fully understanding information unless it’s fully “digested” for them, or not responsible enough to have access to the data – with the inference they will use it to attack managers, foster dissension or even leak the information. The inference is usually based on the employees’ level and job function (white collar is ok, blue collar is not.) Though there will always be bad apples in any company, in my 20 years of experience I’ve never seen compelling evidence that a majority of employees will abuse the priviledge of candor, or that the risk outweighs the benefits. And I’m don’t necessarily buy the logic that the workforce can be easily divided into white or blue collar (or front-line) workers. Some would argue age, or generational divisions, is much more relevant. 

No matter the workforce, the role of the communication professional is to find the right balance between candor and overload, and the best way to share information and foster relevant dialogue. It’s also critical that we strive to be relevant and responsive, so the communication process is a dialogue rather than a one-way street. But the default should always be to give employees the benefit of the doubt and treat them like intelligent, trustworthy partners. That’s the only way we can build credibility in the process (and leadership team) and drive employee engagement.