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By: Kim Strom, Director of UNC-Chapel Hill Office of Ethics and Policy

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant”. This oft-heard (but less-often followed) call for transparency raises interesting questions. Is that even true? Surely chemicals disinfect better than sunshine.  And is sunlight only useful when conditions are already contaminated, or can it prevent problems from growing in shadows or darkness? Is there such a thing as too much sunshine?  Is this clumsy adage the best we can do in describing the merits of transparency?

Transparency is the least conventional of the shared values identified for possible adoption at UNC. In many ways it is an enabling virtue—one that precedes or sustains the others. In referring to openness, transparency is an amalgamation of many important values, including honesty, respect, and responsibility. UNC may ultimately conclude that it needs another mix of shared values, but for the time being, consider the way that embracing transparency might support the other values (community, integrity, and accountability) and make UNC a better place to work and study.

As a public institution, UNC is subject to laws on open meetings and salary data and other records are publicly available. These familiar forms of transparency are not always an easy fit and thus robust discussions are constrained when broadcast on zoom or covered by media. Workarounds and doublespeak are employed to avoid compliance and clarity.

Transparency is essential to an ethical climate in organizations and should be evident in communications, practices, policies, meetings, and other interactions. Making cultural changes requires conscious effort and deliberate actions to overcome the previous opaque culture. Unforced opacity is paternalistic, suggesting the other person, group, or community, cannot be trusted with information, cannot withstand difficult truths, or cannot contribute meaningfully to the topic at hand.

Obviously, there are situations in which full candor is prohibited (personnel actions, health information). When we can’t be transparent, we can still be honest. “Sensitive negotiations are taking place at this point” or “That is protected public health information.” But when the default setting is to make decisions in the shadows or convey only snippets of information, what is it that we are afraid of? Raucous discussion? Dissent? Inefficiency? Erosion of power?

The risks of openness may be offset by the rewards: increased trust, clarity of mission, sense of purpose and teamwork, and improved performance. Maybe transparency even improves efficiency because people know where they stand and how to direct their efforts to a common goal. So, the thought experiment for this month is to reflect on our workplace practices. On balance, where are you on the cloudy-to-clear spectrum? When and why are you prone to opacity? Can you try a small experiment this month and let the sunshine in?

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