Building trust in the workplace

How efforts by employers and employees can enhance an organization’s culture.
By Lea Hart

Trust within an organization is essential to its success. But "Global Generations 3.0" research, released by EY in June, showed trust isn't a given.

The survey of nearly 10,000 workers ages 19 to 68 in eight countries revealed that just 46% of employees placed "a great deal of trust" in their employer, and only 49% placed "a great deal of trust" in their manager or colleagues. Employers and employees both must take deliberate steps to help build trust. Here are some key tips that experts recommend:

  • Start at the top. Ed Guttenplan, CPA, CGMA, managing shareholder at Wilkin & Guttenplan P.C., emphasizes that trust starts at the top and encourages everyone at the firm from the top down to be accountable. For instance, Guttenplan said he and the management team at his firm decided to lead by example by admitting their mistakes. "If we're wrong, we say we're wrong," Guttenplan said. Tamera Loerzel, CPA, partner at ConvergenceCoaching LLC, said sharing vision, goals, and expectations with employees also builds trust.
  • Recognize the risk. Karyn Twaronite, CPA, EY Global Diversity & Inclusiveness officer, noted that the Global Generations 3.0 research found that many employees who have a low level of trust in their organization said they would be more likely to look for another job and would be less engaged at work. "The latter findings are important to consider because they not only affect the employee, but potentially impact the company's customers, and thus potentially its bottom and top lines," she said.
  • Be transparent. Transparency makes employees feel that they are valued and a high priority to their employers, Twaronite said. "Employers and bosses need to inform their employees of how the company is doing, both the good and if things need to improve, and how they can help," she said.
  • Lack of transparency can lead to worry and fear among employees, Loerzel said. For example, if employees don't understand the organization's decisions, they may jump to inaccurate conclusions. "It may not be reality, but it creates a spiral and a lack of trust," she said.

    Transparency is a two-way street. Guttenplan's firm uses a 360-degree evaluation process in which an employee's manager, peers, and those reporting to the employee each evaluate the employee. He said none of the company's evaluation processes are anonymous. "Everyone has to have the courage to say what's on their mind," he said. "Being open and honest is a core value for us."

  • Communicate … and then communicate some more. "Don't let people wonder," Loerzel said. Provide regular updates on projects, decisions, and goals. And provide those updates in a fashion that fits your employees' preferences. Email is easy, but if regular face-to-face time works better for a group of employees, go that route instead, she said.
  • Wilkin & Guttenplan encourages communication through a number of outlets, including an advisory committee and group meetings at each level. Guttenplan also said the firm has implemented a "Future Council" for its youngest employees. This group discusses what the workplace may look like in 10 years and how to move in that direction.

    Communication also means disclosing self-interest, Loerzel said. It can be tough to say out loud, "I want to work on this project because it will help me get that promotion," but being upfront actually builds trust. "Employees and employers are more likely to trust those who've been honest about their intentions in the past," she said.

  • Be fair across the board. "Employees want to be treated fairly almost more than anything else," said Jessica Siegel Christian, clinical assistant professor of organizational behavior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Kenan-Flagler Business School. Fairness in compensation and treatment are issues that matter to employees across the board, she said. Employees generally perceive compensation as fair when employers make decisions on the basis of performance or seniority, for instance. If employees perceive that employers decide compensation randomly or play favorites, employees are less trusting, according to Christian. Organizational procedures are another area in which employers need to be fair, Christian said. For example, she suggested giving employees a say in important decisions.
  • Encourage community. Research conducted by Christian and three associates showed that employees who develop "multiplex relationships" are more trusting of their co-workers. Multiplex relationships occur when co-workers develop both a business relationship and a personal friendship with one another within the workplace, according to Christian. To encourage multiplex relationships, employers might ask employees to share something personal at the start of a work meeting with new people, Christian suggested. Through these types of interactions, employees may learn they have something in common and begin to develop friendships outside their business relationships, she said.
  • What's more, if their employees are not involved in the community, employers may wish to create opportunities for them. Christian said research has shown that community volunteering promotes employee trust and reduces turnover.

Employers and employees should consider whether what they do or say builds or erodes trust, Loerzel recommended. She also pointed out that when both groups take time to reflect on how they promote trust within the organization, the percentage of employees who place a great deal of trust in their employers and co-workers will climb.

Lea Hart is a freelance writer based in Durham, N.C. To comment on this story, contact Chris Baysden, senior manager of newsletters at the AICPA.

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