Company Weakness: Train to Disclose and Improve?

Last week, Google’s self-disclosed lack of workforce diversity was in the news. As reported by CBS News: “A company-wide diversity report shows that just 2 percent of Google employees are black and 3 percent are Hispanic. About a third of the company’s workforce is Asian. The gender breakdown is 70 percent male and 30 percent female. But tech and leadership positions at the company are even more male-dominated: About 80 percent of those jobs are held by men.”

The diversity numbers aren’t surprising since the high-tech world requires the kind of education many disadvantaged minority groups are not able to afford, and high-tech seems to have always been dominated by men, either because women self-select out of the field, or because they are discriminated against (or some combination of those two causes).

I admire Google’s self-examination and the openness about discussing what most would consider a weakness. It got me wondering whether other companies could use the same approach as a first step toward improving diversity and addressing other weaknesses.

As trainers, how often do you have to play company-wide psychologist or therapist in noticing skill gaps or workforce shortcomings and encouraging executives to be open about them? It’s often said, after all, that the first step to fixing a problem is admitting you have a problem.

One thought I had was the advantage of sharing with a larger pool of people—beyond just the C-suite—the results of workforce needs assessments you conduct jointly with Human Resources. It seems that the culture at many companies is to hide weaknesses from the workforce and public, for fear of the possible backlash. A better attitude may be to acknowledge the weakness and then let everyone know the steps you’re taking to fix it. The weakness—whether it’s lack of diversity, slow response time in the call center, merchandise that has received poor customer reviews, or malfunctioning products—then can be turned to an advantage. You’ll be sending the message to the public that you’re a proactive company, and in the process, you’ll create a platform to advertise the “new” company after the improvement has been made. You’ll be setting the stage for positive, corporate makeover stories.

Since many traditional executives are still hesitant to take this approach, a trainer’s first strategy for changing the cover-up mentality is the curriculum of leadership development and new manager programs. Since many of these programs include classes or exercises about handling crises, one possible response you can teach is public disclosure followed by a publically shared improvement plan. Rather than dictate this as the appropriate response, you may want to just suggest it as one of the options in responding to a crisis, pointing out the benefits of doing so. You can compare and contrast the advantages of the open style of crisis management versus the closed style. Setting it up as a discussion may deflect criticism from your more traditional C-suite residents of the lesson on the advantages of openness.

In addition to gaining the public’s trust as a company that is honest when it makes a mistake or has a weakness, another advantage to being open about needed improvements is enhanced employee engagement. Your employees, particularly Generation Yers, value corporate social responsibility, which includes taking responsibility for negative impacts.

When faced with a company challenge, you can create buy-in from employees and the public by not only disclosing but asking for feedback on how to improve. You might as well take advantage of the age of social media and gather as many good ideas as possible from those who will implement your plans (your employees) and those who will purchase what you’re selling (your customers).

What kind of crisis management training does your company offer? Do you teach, or at least discuss, the advantages of an open approach?