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Looking Inward to Rebuild Trust

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The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer revealed an implosion of trust, with CEO credibility bottoming out and trust in business falling. Yet despite this widespread cynicism, there’s hope and opportunity to build trust from the inside out, starting with employees. We asked Meghan Barstow and Tamara Snyder, executive vice presidents from Employee Engagement, to share their takeaways from this year’s study.

The credibility of CEOs has plummeted to an all-time low of just 37 percent. It stands to reason there’s a lack of trust within companies as well. What gives?

Meghan: We’ve seen a slow decline in the credibility of the CEO, just as we’ve seen a marked increase in the credibility of “a person like me” over the years. But what should make leaders sit up and take notice this year is the cliff drop in CEO credibility — down 12 points. The takeaway? Traditional figure heads of business are being put on notice in terms of how they operate, communicate and engage. My suggestion is to look for ways to authentically engage with employees. Doug McMillon, Walmart CEO, does a great job of engaging his employees on his own Facebook page — posting pictures with team members during store visits and using Facebook Live to stream the annual shareholder meeting. Regardless of the channel, CEOs should infuse an element of the personal into their communications and take the time to listen to and engage with employees.

Globalization really struck a nerve this year, with 62 percent of respondents saying they’re concerned about it and 27 percent outright fearful. We also saw that “foreign competition for jobs” is tied for the workforce’s top concern. How can companies – particularly global ones – talk about these issues with their employees?

Tamara: This is a delicate balance for multi-national companies who have moved jobs across borders in the name of competitiveness. So often the storyline internally is focused on entirely why globalization is good for business, with only a vague implication that everyone stands to benefit when the company performs well. Of course, the reality is much more complicated and change of any kind is never going be universally positive. It’s more a matter of treating employees like the adults they are and being straight about the good, the bad and the ugly. When there’s media coverage about your company or industry, even if it’s speculative, don’t pretend like employees didn’t just read it on their phones during your staff meeting. Talk about it. Encouraging healthy debate about the world beyond your company’s four walls – and sometimes agreeing to disagree – makes people feel heard and trusted. If you want employees to trust you, you have to trust them.

People are highly skeptical of official sources of information: only 36 percent believe company press statements, but 64 percent believe leaked information. There has to be an opportunity.

Meghan: Well, you might accuse me of making lemonade here, but I honestly believe there is a huge opportunity in the porous nature of “internal” communications today. Take the positive feedback on Apple CEO Tim Cook’s heartfelt note to his employees after the U.S. election. Whether leaked or proactively shared, this is great PR. The reality is that there is no longer any internal versus external communications and companies should embrace this fact by encouraging employees to share their personal perspectives on the employee experience.

According to this year’s data, the number-one action companies can take to build trust is to treat employees well. Beyond actually treating employees well, what else should companies do to make sure they’re conveying a strong story about their employee experience?

Tamara: If you’re not responding to employee reviews on Glassdoor and other job rating sites, you’re missing an opportunity. Research shows that simply the act of responding to online feedback can boost a consumer brand’s reputation among customers, and I’d argue there’s a lesson to be learned there for employers. But here’s the thing: you can’t fake a great employee experience. If your people are miserable, if they distrust management, that’s going to be reflected in how they treat customers. Our research indicates employees who trust their employer are far more motivated to do their very best for customers. An employee who is proud of their work and not afraid to say so says things a press release never can. The inverse is true as well: employees can be your biggest champions or your harshest critics –  and generally the world believes them.

The other top concern of the workforce was “lack of training/skills.” Where do employers go wrong here? 

Tamara: Recruiters will often talk up career development opportunities when wooing a candidate and again in new hire orientation. Over time, however, they sometimes forget about people who have been with the company for awhile. It’s so important to continuously educate employees about all the resources and programs available to them: tuition reimbursement, rotational programs, self-paced learning, mentorship, and so on. Unless you’re in HR, you’re probably not thinking about all these things on a daily basis – you have to re-recruit people constantly. Remind people they don’t have to leave to develop their skills and show them how. Let employees who have been promoted from within share their own stories.

In today’s highly polarized world where people are deeply entrenched in their own beliefs, what can employers do to combat the “echo chamber” effect?

Meghan: I have two pieces of advice. First, focus on what you all have in common during otherwise divisive times: the mission, vision and values of your organization. Reminding employees of what you all stand for and are trying to achieve together can be remarkably powerful. Second, consider providing a safe, supportive venue for employees to gather and share their opinions and ideas. We have done this at Edelman several times over the past year and we all leave these discussions, which are supported by but not led by senior leaders, with a sense of hope, solidarity and stronger connection to our company.

Tamara: Listen to your people and act on what they tell you. And by that I don’t mean just asking for input in an annual engagement survey that takes months to analyze and even longer to turn into action (if at all). Ask for regular input on specific topics that affect employees. We use TinyPulse to ask employees just one question each week: from “what training course would you find valuable?” to “what should we serve at our next all-staff meeting?” It works… if you listen and act.

How can companies break through and forge a more authentic dialogue with employees?

Meghan: In the spirit of bold proclamations at the dawn of this new trust era, I’d like to suggest that corporate speak is dead. But seriously, senior leaders and communicators need to take a hard look at how they speak – internally and externally. Many of our clients have developed tone of voice documents that adopt a much more informal and human style and focus on showing rather than telling.

Tamara: Give employees a secure outlet to have discussions on tough topics – globalization, the state of your business, or what the shifting geopolitical landscape means to your company. We use Workplace by Facebook, and our senior leaders livestream town halls and invite employees to share their opinions on industry trends. Remember: employees are already having these conversations on their own social networks whether you’re paying attention or not.

Tamara Snyder is an executive vice president with Employee Engagement.
Meghan Barstow is an executive vice president with Employee Engagement.

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