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How research shows EVERY LEADER should be worried when employees lose trust in HR

Dec 16, 2022 | Human Resources, Uncategorized

Research shows employees are steadily losing trust in HR – and it’s harmful to the entire business.  See what happens when companies prioritize trust and five steps to restoring trust in your HR team in the new year.

It’s late December and while many may associate the phrase “tis the season” with holidays, for many HR professionals and teams this season is also synonymous with layoffs.  Having left my last corporate HR role nearly 5 years ago, my stomach still churns over the Thanksgiving holiday due to 15 years of holidays soon followed by layoffs, delegated to corporate HR teams.  Returning from the holiday only to find the dreaded 9am strategic planning meeting plotted on your calendar which HR teams have come to learn is code for “layoff planning” as executives scramble to put together optimistic Q1 projections that will please fair-weather shareholders.  As waves of layoffs sweep across the US and markets continue to fall, I wonder, is this why employees have lost trust in HR?  While HR has a long history of being the bearer of bad news, research suggests trust in HR is spiraling.  Recent poll results show 47% of employees don’t feel safe confiding in and getting assistance from HR with only 25% indicating they feel HR is widely trusted as one who cares about the needs of employees.  A separate survey of 1,000 UK workers shows 31% aren’t sure or don’t trust HR to respect their privacy and confidentiality.  At a time where the employee experience and wellbeing are more valuable than ever in history, how is it that the HR and people teams tasked with leading these initiatives, have lost the room?

Why does trust in HR matter?

Human resources, by design, represents the business as an employer.  Our customers are internal, consisting of employees from the C-suite to the front lines, new hires to tenured staff, from creatives to technicians.  HR professionals serve the organization, as a whole.  Tasked with upholding policies, communications, benefits, and systems that both manage and serve leaders, peers, part-time employees, and even Independent Contractors, HR teams are the face and conscience of a company.  Naturally, employees with a high-level of trust in their company have a high-level of trust in HR, and vice versa.  And whether a business is anticipating a recession or growth in 2023, the level of trust employees regard their company matters, a lot.  People at high-trust companies report 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, 29% more satisfaction with their lives, and 40% less burnout.  So, whether downsizing or scaling, trust is the foundation and key to any company’s success.

Characteristics of high-trust organizations

Aside from a happier and more productive employee population, high-trust organizations have been found to have very distinct characteristics.  Perhaps not surprising, trusting organizations tend to work more collaboratively and autonomously, in a more trusting way.  Working confidently and supportively, teams focus less on managing and policies and more on support and teamwork.  These characteristics are even more clearly articulated by Paul Zak, Neuroeconomist and Professor of Economic Sciences at Claremont Graduate University in his article The Neuroscience of Trust where he shares the eight behaviors he and his research team found to foster trust in a series of experiments and surveys.  Behaviors are as follows:

  1. Recognize excellence – publicly celebrate success when a goal has been met tangibly, unexpectedly, making it personal to the individual/team.
  2. Induce “challenge stress” – assign a team a difficult but achievable job.
  3. Autonomy – give people discretion in how they do their work.
  4. Co-create – enable job crafting.
  5. Communicate – share information broadly.
  6. Focus on relationships – intentionally build relationships.
  7. Inspire – facilitate whole-person growth.
  8. Be humble – show vulnerability.

As found in similar studies, trust in the workplace is less a noun or result and more a verb, or approach.  Whereas low-trust environments dedicate time and energy to supervising and dictating the manner in which team members work, members of high-trust environments communicate, guide, and share with intention.  For HR teams specifically, examples of low-trust characteristics would be restrictive policies or a focus on compliance whereas high-trust HR teams take a broader culture-focused on purposeful values and enabling an environment conducive to collaborative, self-directed work.

How to restore and cultivate trust in HR in 2023

While high-trust organizations may have common behaviors and characteristics, making the transition from a low-trust to high-trust environment is not as simple as adopting high-trust behaviors overnight.  Not many of us would immediately trust anyone who, overnight without reason, changed his/her behaviors 180 degrees in a matter of hours.  The path to regaining and restoring trust is much different than the path where trust was never lost.  For any team, particularly one with a history of secrecy and a perceived or actual lack of accountability as HR teams, the path to earning trust can seem long and to some, unpleasant.  No matter, it is the only way forward.  And it comes down to the following five steps:

Step One:  State your intention.

Have you ever made a significant change only to realize after weeks or perhaps months of effort and discipline, those around you didn’t notice?  When I was growing up and my mother decided to lose weight, a significant amount of weight.  It was only after months into her weight loss journey, when she and I started wearing the same size clothes, that I noticed.  It’s not because I didn’t care or that I wasn’t supportive, but simply because I, like most insecure teenagers, was preoccupied with my own appearance.  Too preoccupied to see what was happening to those around me.  Similarly, with the emotional, societal, financial importance most of us place on work, it’s fair to assume many leaders, peers, and teams around us are also too preoccupied and perhaps consumed with their own challenges, professionally and personally to notice differences in our behaviors, unless clearly brought to their attention.  An HR team stating they intend to establish a deeper, more meaningful connection of the employees they support, is after all a good thing to declare openly.

Step Two:  Assess current standing.

Prior to implementing a plan, assess how employees perceive HR, currently.  While there are several metrics that are associated with a higher level of trust in HR such as higher employee engagement, lower turnover, and better workplace satisfaction, the most straightforward way to assess the current level of trust within the HR team is through an employee survey.  Questions should be specific and require a Likert-scale (ie, strongly agree, agree, disagree, etc), multiple-choice, or yes/no responses to allow for simple and consistent measurement.  For HR-teams interested in how to improve trust and connection within their organization, include additional questions for employees on how they would like to see HR be more supportive and/or available.  Caution when allowing for open text survey answers in response to anonymous survey questions as allegations of harassment or misconduct made using text fields may require investigation or follow-up.  Truly anonymous surveys prohibit the ability to conduct an investigations; however breaking a commitment of anonymity in an effort to investigated claims will further jeopardize trust in the company.

Step Three:  Assess and share results.

Here is where I will lose many readers as sharing results, particularly initial results, can be very uncomfortable for most leaders and teams.  My response to these teams – when isn’t vulnerability and accountability uncomfortable?  Perhaps the most difficult step, it is also the most transformational step.  Even the most strategic leaders and teams choosing to skip this step or approach it superficially by sharing very little with employees, will see much less improvement than even a less strategic team that approaches this step with authentic humility.  For anything to improve, particularly when progress hinges on feedback, we have to want to improve more than we want to protect our egos.  When the goal is to gain trust and connection, honesty must be the foundation.  An HR-team that refuses to put the needs of their employees, leaders, and workplace ahead of their own pride is an HR team undeserving of trust.  For employees to trust you, you need to trust them first.  Your level of transparency will determine your level of success.

Step Four:  Create and execute a plan to improve.

Note, your plan is to improve, not perfect.  Don’t get too hung up on a “perfect plan”.  Teams will spend weeks or sometimes months trying to create the perfect plan when really the best plan typically comes down to two things:  communication and consistency.  Create 2-3 doable action steps and implement them – frequently sharing your intention and progress with employees.  If your goal is to prove to employees they are truly safe to give honest and open feedback, allow employees to ask questions or express concerns without the real or perceived fear of retaliation using a feedback tool or partner.  If your goal is to make HR more visible and accessible, plan to have an HR presence in departmental meetings, helping employees to feel HR is more approachable.  Neither activity requires a great deal of time or energy, but both can be done consistently and should come along with communication as to why the team is doing it.  If a weekly anonymous survey goes out to all employees, the communication to the survey should remind employees the purpose of the exercise is to help hold HR accountable to the organization and help uncover how HR can be more of a supportive role to the company’s culture.  Using the example of HR team members attending departmental meetings in an effort to promote visibility and accessibility of HR, attending HR staff should introduce themselves at the beginning of each departmental meeting, reminding employees that they’re working to have more of an active presence in the workplace, being more accessible to employees.  Communication ties the activity to the overall goal and purpose whereas consistency demonstrates the importance of the goal and purpose.

Step Five:  Reassess and optimize.

While consistency is key in cultivating and restoring trust, this does not mean plans can’t change.  A team failing to see any measurable progress after four months should consider revising their plan.  By improving the trust and connection employees have with the HR-team, we are in essence deepening and growing relationships, at scale.  As with any relationship, this requires ongoing dialog and tweaking.  For HR-teams embarking on this process, this means a continuous process of stating intentions, creating a plan to improve, measuring progress, and modifying or fine-tuning the plan.  As long as a team gives context and reason for plan changes (ultimately how the change is to help better align to the overall goal), employees will understand.  When plans or behaviors change without reason, employees will typically suspect the worst – believing perhaps the HR-team no longer feels trust and connection is important.  Communication is key at every phase of every plan – ranging from the highly sophisticated to the most simplistic.  None will work without communication.

95% of US HR-professionals (people professionals) feel their career is meaningful, according to a global 2020 survey by YouGov.  80% believe their work is connected to what they value in life with 75% feeling their work impacts the larger social good of the communities in which they live.  But it’s not our knowledge of employment laws that makes our work meaningful.  It’s not alone in our offices that we make significant change within our communities.  Social change happens for us when we connect with those peers, leaders, and employees around us in the workplace.  Our sense of meaning comes from seeing the people in our workplaces thrive personally and professionally as a result of our understanding how to best support them.  Success in the field of HR, for any company, starts by earning the trust of the leaders and employees we serve.  Where employees feel connected and have trust in their HR-team, there is a company bursting with creative and purposeful potential.  This year, every HR professional and team can benefit by letting go of the traditional and rigid ways of the past designed on a premise of distrust, instead embracing the inspiring and collaborative culture-focused approach known to spark the creativity, and true greatness that happens only when individuals connect as a team.