HONESTY? HONESTLY!

“Integrity is telling myself the truth. And honesty is telling the truth to other people.”Spencer Johnson

When Carol Bartz was relieved of the big swivel chair in the Yahoo boardroom recently, many commentators applauded the refreshing frankness of her short goodbye email to staff. It included an admission that she had been sacked, by phone, by her chairman.

She could have said she was stepping down to pursue other interests, to spend more time with her knitting or claimed divergent views over strategic direction. But no, not Carol, who openly confessed to having been ‘fired’, emboldened perhaps by the prospect of a $14 million severance package.

But then, honesty quickly gave way to emotion and Ms Bartz gave an ill-advised interview to Fortune Magazine when she claimed that ‘… those people f**ked me over.’ ‘Those people’, one can only assume, are the same erstwhile Board colleagues she went on to describe to the reporter as ‘doofuses’.

Mixing press interviews and raw emotion, particularly for executives like Carol who are on first name terms with the type of language practiced by well-refreshed sailors, seldom end happily.
With her handsome severance package subject to a non-disparaging clause, she might now be regretting her foul-mouthed candour. But the story got me thinking – does honesty, even subjective honesty, ever make a comfortable bedfellow in the corporate world?

I’ve never met a company that sets out to be dishonest in its communications. I’m not talking here about Sherriff Sarbanes and Inspector Oxley’s work in cleaning up corporate reporting and disclosure among US-listed corporations, but the challenge of honesty and transparency in everyday corporate communications.

When it comes down to it, most companies sugar coat with the worst types of political correctness. They ‘right size’ instead of cutting jobs, they express ‘regret’ instead of saying they’re sorry when they get it wrong and they set about ‘restructuring’ or ‘transforming’ when the business simply isn’t delivering good results. Nor can they bring themselves to admit to weakness. When they miss the market, forcing them to link up with a competitor to fill a void in their offering, they express near religious levels of delight with their new ‘strategic partnership’, and typically never mention it again.

This is partly the work of lawyers who think they’re reducing or eliminating corporate risk, or marketeers and senior executives who have an acute allergy to criticism from the hacks and analysts paid to express an objective opinion on the business. The problem also stems from trying to satisfy the often conflicting demands of multiple, self-interested parties. Investors usually welcome job cuts or cost reductions in the hope of inflated returns or dividends, while employees with mortgages and their trades union representatives typically disagree. The flaccid nature of internal announcements can also be driven by fear of leaks to the outside world.

Corporations, both privately and publicly held, can choose how honest they want to be in their internal and external communications. But unless they’re prepared to meet the cost of that transparency when they don’t like the reaction, CEOs would be better served not standing on platforms promising such values.

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