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Why we must rebuild trust in the workplace

8 Apr 2020 By Justine Campbell

Organisations that take steps to create a transparent and inclusive environment will boost employee trust – and see numerous business benefits, says Justine Campbell

In a world of fake news, rising use of social media and increasing levels of viral content, knowing who and what information to trust is becoming an increasingly important and topical issue. According to the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer published at the start of the year, 76 per cent of people worry about fake news or false information being used as a weapon. 

The barometer also highlights how methods of measuring trust have evolved as people’s expectations of institutions have changed; it determines that trust is based on both delivering promises and ethical behaviour – doing the right thing and working to improve society. It’s no longer a matter of what you do, it’s how you do it. 

There is a real challenge for organisations to create a high-trust culture in a low-trust society. However, action needs to be taken to rebuild and strengthen confidence; the negative consequences of creating an environment where employees don’t feel able to ask questions and be their authentic selves could be at the expense of business. This is even more significant given the context of coronavirus and at a time of real uncertainty, when many of us will be feeling concerned about the safety of loved ones, colleagues, clients and the wider community. Trust has arguably never been more important.

Research into the benefits of getting ‘trust’ right is clear. For example, in a study by Harvard Business Review, people at high-trust organisations reported 74 per cent less stress and 76 per cent more engagement, resulting in 50 per cent higher productivity. 

A vital element in creating an environment of trust hinges on a company’s ability to be transparent. Employers need to share information that can allow employees to make informed decisions. Mandatory publishing of pay gap data, for example, put the spotlight on the diversity of businesses and, since the introduction of the UK gender pay gap regulations, many have chosen to go beyond the regulations. 

At EY, we took the decision to publish additional pay gap data covering ethnicity, sexual orientation and disability. This is an important part of our concerted efforts to really consider the make-up of the workforce and the steps we are taking to address pay gaps within different groups. In addition to this, we have a responsibility to continuously look at new ways to be transparent both within the business and externally; reporting the diversity of new partner intakes, publishing CEO pay ratio data and other metrics can have a huge impact on building trust. 

Sharing this type of information is only part of the picture, though. Taking tangible action based on what the information shows is also key. Setting diversity targets and outlining diversity policies can help hold a company to account and encourage real action on the issues. For example, at EY, we’ve set targets to double the proportion of BAME and female talent in the UK partnership to 20 per cent and 40 per cent respectively by July 2025. Being able to show clear examples of where progress is being made – such as career progression for those on different flexible working arrangements, or real change in the diversity of the workforce at various levels – can be really effective. 

Recruitment is also an important element. At EY, we tend to find that experienced professionals – who are often more aware of the requirements and expectations of the workplace – want to know that they can trust the organisation they are joining to treat them fairly. For students and graduates, while being treated fairly is clearly important, being transparent about the expectations of a role and the ambitions of a company is often their main priority. 

Creating a work environment where people feel like they belong creates psychological safety, which is essential for trust – it helps us all to feel inspired and better connected to our peers and leaders. And, more importantly, when employees feel like they belong, they often have greater mental and physical wellbeing. 

We don’t claim to have all the answers and, indeed, we know we still have more to do at EY. All organisations have a part to play in rebuilding trust. And to achieve this, many will need to think differently.

Justine Campbell is managing partner for talent at EY

Deputy Director of People, Culture & Transformation

Deputy Director of People, Culture & Transformation

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