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The great employee trust divide

Edelman's latest Trust Barometer finds one in three people don't trust their employer – what can be done to fix this?

Do your employees trust you? Very few companies have asked themselves this question. The answer seems pretty obvious. Of course they do! After all, you pay their wages. Keep them informed about what’s going on in the company. Provide them with a safe place to work. Train and develop them...

The idea of employees not trusting their employer evokes memories of the 1970s. Flying pickets and closing factories. Workers against their bosses. A ‘them and us’ attitude that has no place in a modern economy.

So you may be surprised to hear that one in three people don’t trust their employer.

This is the finding of Edelman’s 2016 Trust Barometer. This global survey has been running for 16 years but for the first time the 2016 data includes startling findings about levels of employee trust.

And the one in three figure is just the beginning. Equally alarming is that there is a huge trust divide between leaders and the people who work for them. Among executives 64% trust the company they work for. For rank and file employees it’s only 48%.

That’s a big gap. And it’s consistent with what we’re seeing in wider society with a growing trust divide between ‘elites’ and the general public. In many ways this points directly to a ‘them and us’ situation. People who have benefited from ‘the system’ trust it. The rest, less so.

But this is an even bigger problem for employers. Why? Because your employees are among your most credible spokespeople.

The Trust Barometer shows that people trust companies when they treat their employees well. Have ethical business practices. React well to problems and crises. The Barometer also shows that these are the same topics that employees are most trusted to talk about. Therefore if your staff are saying bad things about you your customers will believe them and be less likely to buy from you. On the flip side, if your employees are saying good things about you your customers will still believe them. And they’ll be more likely to buy from you.

And what’s a major factor influencing whether employees will say good things about their company? Trust in your CEO. People who trust their CEO are more likely to recommend their company as an employer and recommend its products and services to others. Again (and perhaps unsurprisingly) employees and the wider public feel the same way about CEOs’ trust-building attributes. More than two-thirds of people feel that CEOs are too focused on short-term financial results.

Employees are more likely to advocate for their employer when their CEO has something to say about, and meaningful involvement in, societal issues. In fact, eight out of 10 people say they want this from CEOs.

So what should you do to build employee trust and turn your employees into advocates? Here are seven ideas of where to start:

1. Think about your employees and your customers in the same way. Ensure that the quality of communications to your people is the same as your communications to customers, investors, and other external stakeholders.

2. Support your leaders by helping them engage employees to build trust. In particular, and especially for your CEO, help your leaders describe to employees the ways in which the company is a positive force for good in society.

3. Develop an easy to remember and repeat story that has a positive force for good at its heart. Don’t settle for only describing your business strategy to employees. Show them how this strategy delivers something truly worthwhile to the world, beyond corporate profit.

4. Bring this story to life with real proof points that are evidence of your good work. Make sure these proof points recognise your employee heroes – those whose actions and behaviours demonstrate the value you bring to the world.

5. Enable employees to share your story and proof points with each other and the wider world. Give them shareable content and a simple platform that lets them publish content to their own social networks.

6. Track employee engagement on an ongoing basis. Listen continuously to your employees. You wouldn’t gauge your customer engagement efforts on a wing and a prayer, so adopt the same rigour and discipline when it comes to your employees.

7. And, finally, make sure your internal communications team has the capability, resources and structure to make all this happen. Recognise that this may be quite a different type of team than what you needed only a few years ago.

Nick Howard is executive director of Edelman’s employee engagement business in Europe