If you choose “radical transparency” for your company, be ready for the consequences

Publishing the employee code is just step one.
Publishing the employee code is just step one.
Image: HubSpot/Katlyn Ohara
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A year ago, Boston marketing startup HubSpot posted a slide deck about its employee culture—which it calls its “culture code”—and which ended up being widely shared. It was inspired by other culture guides like Valve’s employee handbook and Netflix’s culture deck. But HubSpot’s guide changes as rapidly as the company itself does. It’s now on its 14th version.

HubSpot emphasizes unlimited vacation, making financial information available to employees, and encouraging employees to work where they want for as long as they want. Like social media startup Buffer, which publicized its efforts to be radically transparent, HubSpot has seen a jump in applications, according to Dharmesh Shah, the company’s CTO and the lead author of the presentation. The company now has nearly 650 employees and is reportedly moving towards an IPO (paywall.)

Despite the benefits in publicity, recruiting, and reinforcing good behavior—being public about company culture isn’t easy.

“I’ve talked to a lot of people that are in the process of or are making attempts of documenting their culture. My advice to them is that it’s always going to be more painful than you think it is,” Shah told Quartz.

No company is a paradise

A statement about a company’s culture is aspirational. But from the outside, the assumption is that what a company publicizes reflects reality. When HubSpot first made the deck public, there wasn’t enough distinction between goals and accomplishments.

“The perception that it was creating was that HubSpot was this perfect, utopian workplace,” Shah says. “And I’d not intended for it to come out that way.”

That led to some internal critique—Shah updated the document and added “liner notes” on statements or policies that were works in progress, along with end notes on what doesn’t always work for people at the company. It was a way to acknowledge that there was still friction at HubSpot, as there is anywhere.

To some people, the company’s emphasis on autonomy can feel chaotic instead of empowering.

“We try to keep the document as honest and candid as possible partly because it’s part of our culture and what we think it’s the right thing to do,” Shah said.

Being collaborative and reworking the document over time has allowed it to become a more accurate reflection of the company’s culture.

The “federal versus state” issue

HubSpot has a few immutable rights across the company—every employee has access to detailed financial data about the company that many employers keep hidden. No individual can override that.

Other policies are more complicated and varied. It’s what Shah calls the “federal versus state” issue, which he believes is one of the biggest areas of tension in a company’s culture. There are company-wide mandates that don’t always work on a team or individual level.

“Our philosophy is that we don’t believe in where you work or what hours you work being important [and we] just care about result,” Shah says. “For a lot of people, that works great. But we’ve had street-level overrides of that where individual group leaders have come back and said this just doesn’t make sense for us.”

Tech support teams for example, may need a more defined schedule. There’s a constant balance between the fact that every role is different and the idea that some company rules should apply to everybody. To combat that tension, Shah has found that simpler is better in the code and his company, and leans towards writing about philosophy rather than specific policy.

The document and similar efforts from other companies aren’t ever likely to be finished.

“Its called a code because I’m an engineer by trade,” Shah says. “I think of it as like the operating system of the business and like all code, should be carried out and improved based on what we learn.”