These days, talking of the backroom elements of a business seems hopelessly outdated. The walls are down and each aspect of your company is there to see, warts and all. So what does this mean for your culture and identity?

Seasoned foodies will tell you how the typical fine dining experience has changed over the last couple of decades. There was a time when it meant waiting patiently in serene surroundings. Then, as if by magic, food would arrive effortlessly at your table from behind a closed door. What exactly did it take to get it there? What type of things were going on in that kitchen? Few diners knew or really cared.

But then things changed. We all got into cooking. We decided we quite liked glancing over to view the flambeing and the flustered sous chefs. Hearing pans clashing and orders being barked was interesting. This is why open restaurant kitchens are everywhere these days; it’s because the average patron likes to see and hear what’s going on.

Like it or not, your business is a bit like one of those open kitchens. How it’s structured and who gets the profits, who you get your supplies from, how you treat your employees and what they really think of you: increasingly, outsiders are interested in this for all sorts of reasons. And more and more, they can peek right in and look at it for themselves.

No more secrets

Journalists, politicians, socially concerned consumers: among each of these groups is a renewed zeal to expose exploitative bosses. “Run a big brand with a dirty little secret?… Let me put you on notice. There will be no hiding place. We will organise and we will win.” So said General Secretary Frances O’Grady earlier this month at the TUC conference. The promise was to “shine a light” on those companies engaged in poor treatment of staff.

The offering you present to customers might be beautifully plated – and you might even have invested heavily in swish branding for extra dressing. But if there’s something rotten in your kitchen, the chances are that it will come to light.

Something’s not right – and that ‘something’ is there to see

Of course, you’re not running a sweatshop – or even if you are, you’re not big enough (yet) to appear on the radar of crusading trades unionists. So you’ve got nothing to worry about on this front, right?

But let’s say your company is neither toxic nor outright exploitative; it’s just that there’s something missing. You suspect that if they had the full facts, it’s not the type of place where top talent would choose to work.

If this is the reality, truth will out – and there’s a strong chance that it will be at the hands of your employees. Think of Glassdoor and platforms like it; never before has it been so easy for your staff to speak so candidly to such wide an audience about what you’re really like to work for.

According to HR Magazine, two thirds of job applicants now regard Glassdoor as a go-to source of information about employment destinations. Only around half trust marketing collateral from employers. All that money spent on “employer branding”, the ping pong table in the foyer and the carefully crafted job advert: it counts for nothing if it’s not a true reflection of what your company is really like.

This transparency doesn’t stop with how you treat your own employees. The larger you become, the more effort you put into cultivating an image of being “everybody’s friend” and showcasing your “sustainability” credentials, the greater the chances of being called out on any decisions you make that don’t sit right with this image. Take the big consumer tech firms, for instance: Apple, Samsung, Sony: each have faced awkward questions over issues such as use of child labour in their supply chains.

“Transparency isn’t a choice. The only choice is does it happen to you, or do you participate in it.” – Alex Bogusky

Who’s behind the business – and who actually benefits from what it does? Until very recently, only big, listed companies faced scrutiny in this area. But earlier this year, we saw the new ‘persons with significant control’ regime come into force in the UK.

On one level this is simply an additional admin exercise, requiring all companies to publicly disclose details of their significant controllers on a ‘persons with significant control register’. But it can also be seen as part of a wider drive for greater transparency: even for startups and early growth stage companies, who you really are, how you behave, how you are structured and who pulls the strings is all on show.

So what should businesses bear in mind in this new age of transparency? What you do when no-one’s looking has always been important. But an increased interest in what’s happening in your ‘kitchen’ and a greater ability to look inside it all requires special care.

Lesson one:

Everything has a habit of finding its way to the surface in the end

Hold yourself out as ‘X’ when in reality you are ‘Y’, and it’s inevitable that customers will eventually find out. You might employ some of the smartest engineers on the planet, but as the Volkswagen scandal demonstrates, any attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of your customers will invariably come to light.

Cute-sounding comments in your adverts or lofty claims in the ‘Values’ section of your website might be used to cultivate a certain image. But don’t be surprised if you are called out on the detail. Take Avon for instance, who reassured customers on their UK website that they don’t test on animals – or Costa and Starbucks, who gave the distinct impression that their disposable cups were 100% recyclable. Some people actually took the time to look into this stuff, only to find that the claims didn’t stack up.

Lesson two:

Don’t assume no-one cares about transgressions, if your product is OK

Almost three quarters of us would pay a premium for clothing if it was shown that the seller’s workers were being treated fairly.

When the goings-on at Sports Direct came to light (thanks in no small part to a Dispatches documentary), it led to the owner being hauled before a Parliamentary committee. Over the last year, the company’s share price has plummeted by 60%.

No-one’s saying the products have suddenly taken a turn for the worse; it’s just that all eyes are on the backroom and what the company does to get those products on the shelves. People aren’t liking what’s on show – and the company is suffering as a result.

Lesson three:

Don’t regard your company culture as a ‘behind the scenes’ HR issue

“To win in the marketplace, you must first win in the workplace.” Doug Conant.

In one sense, your culture has never been behind the scenes. Nurture an environment where people want to be there; where they feel invested in the company and where there’s a sense of shared purpose, and this will manifest itself directly in the outward signs of the business: your end product, and customer experience.

Now, this is even more the case.

Whether you genuinely do have an open door policy, whether you value the opinions of your staff, the ins and outs of the day-to-day working experience as lived by your employees: where Glassdoor is king, outsiders can take a glimpse at all of this.

Lesson four:

Each decision you make should be informed by your values

“Is this course of action really us?” “Is it in line with what we are supposed to stand for?”

A little while ago, payday lenders were everyone’s favourite villains. There was a “War on Wonga” and it was none other than the Church of England leading the charge; even going so far as to set up its own credit union to combat them. Yet somewhere along the line, the Church had previously managed to find itself with a £100,000 stake in Wonga. Once this was uncovered, this embarrassing contradiction inevitably become the story.

The moral? If you make a decision that quite simply isn’t “you” – and that goes against what’s expected of you, expect it to be picked up on.

Transparency as a positive

How should we view transparency? Is it one more thing to worry about – or is it an opportunity? People are interested in the relationships you build, about the decisions you make and the process that brings the end product to the table. So it follows that we should all work harder to give them something worth looking at – and worth believing.