Transparency in talent management programs … maybe?

“In the spirit of full disclosure” – it’s a phrase that has come into its own in our modern world, which is fraught with covert operations and murky ethics. Perhaps it traces its origins to a dusty law-library volume somewhere, or maybe it bubbled forth from some politico or other. Either way, the concept of full disclosure – aka, transparency – is again at the heart of ongoing debates among business leaders nationwide. Only this time it isn’t about accounting procedures and corporate records. The current buzz revolves around talent management practices.

Specifically, there’s debate about transparency as it relates to succession planning and the identification of employees who are considered to have high potential. A June 2009 article in ASTD’s T+D publication described the very logical route one of its member organizations took to try and cut through the transparency question as it related to its own talent programs.

First, the firm did its research. What did other company leaders think? What were the arguments for and against full disclosure of succession planning and HiPo development efforts? What sort of organizational factors affected such a decision?

Not surprisingly, research revealed that opinions and practices run the gamut from complete secrecy to wide-open communication about talent programming. The full-disclosure camp argues that free-flowing information about succession planning and HiPo development programs can provide a basis for employee motivation by communicating that opportunities exist for those willing to work hard, keep learning and remain onboard. Further, describing the programs on the company intranet or through other communication channels clearly delineates the steps that employees can take to enhance their chances for advancement and development. That’s not to say that such firms proudly trumpet to all and sundry about the latest candidates chosen for the pipeline (though some do), but many advocate telling the chosen candidates about their status, noting that disclosure can support coaching, mentoring and other development activities for that person.

Companies that play it close to the chest reason that revealing too much information may cause employees to expect more than the company is willing to offer – whether that translates to an expectation of promotion into a plum leadership position or a substantial salary increase as a reward for recognized potential. Such organizations also point out that identifying some employees as HiPos or as leadership candidates can torpedo morale among workers who missed the boat themselves. And that can lead to an environment that deflates productivity.

Obviously, a number of organizational factors come into play for firms debating transparency. The corporate culture must support it. Senior leader buy-in is essential. Formal programs with equitable processes must be in place. Communication messages and tools play a big role. Talent management programs must align with business objectives. There are many considerations. In short, while the spirit may be willing, an in-depth exploration is required before full disclosure (or not) can take place. The i4cp Talent Pillar is a great place to start.

Carol Morrison
Carol Morrison is a Senior Research Analyst and Associate Editor with the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp), specializing in workforce well-being research.