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Running a business these days is akin to walking on eggshells – no matter how carefully one treads, the risk of a wrong step making it to the public gaze is ever-present. From the innocuous to the sinister, all our actions have the potential to cause embarrassment as well as financial or reputational damage, the likes of which are hard to recover from.

Transparency in business operates on several levels. From promoting a culture of merit and openness when dealing with employees via HR policies and actions, to ethical dealings with suppliers and regulators – opportunities for irregularities abound. And how long does it take for a disgruntled employee or business partner to expose you?

In the recent past, we have seen the US government face leaks that have caused disruptions to its relations with allies simply because it allegedly spied on them. Commercial entities are on weaker ground when dealing with insider information that is damaging, to say the least. In our local context, many government departments and state-owned enterprises regularly have their inner workings exposed by leaks to the press that show their actions to be less than above-board.

The question then is: What do you do to prevent your company from facing a similar situation?

First of all, we need to make a distinction between secrecy and confidentiality. Much of what a company does needs to be confidential in terms of employee and financial information, business processes and formulations. In addition, there are guidelines by regulatory bodies on disclosures that should not disadvantage one party.

Ethics in business dealings should be easy to manage (just don’t do anything shady); but should an incident occur, how an organisation deals with it becomes of paramount importance. Here, it is the established culture that will determine how things will be handled. Does the little guy get it in the neck while the big fish escape? Are harassment cases dealt with fairly? In this day of social media that has polarised us and our opinions, even these have a way of getting out of hand.

I have been involved in many internal enquiries and have observed that even if someone is cleared of alleged wrongdoing, the company cannot go public with its findings as this does even more damage to the accused. This then becomes a classic case of ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t.’

It really helps if you establish a culture of honesty, integrity and openness. Then, the tide of goodwill tends to go in your favour based on your reputation for being ‘ethical and transparent’.

– Leon Menezes
The writer is a senior HR practitioner, Professor-of-Practice and an Executive Coach.

First published in the ADBUZZZZ Section of The Dawn Weekend Advertiser on December 28, 2014