The Death of Employee Trust: Myth? Or Fable?

Trust is a many-meaning thing. One of its multiple mysteries is the assumed object. As in, “I trust my 16-year old.” Well, to do what? Trusting him to set the table correctly is one thing; to make curfew may be quite another. The identity of the implied object makes all the difference.

A more relevant example is the Edelman Tweet Level test; it rates your twitter handle on several dimensions, including trust. On the Top Twitter Users by Trust ranking, the New York Times is #14. CNN is #4. Tops on the list is–of course–Justin Bieber. (Numbers 2 and 3 are a couple of Kardashians).

Trust to do what? Report the news?  Or–well, I’m not sure what Bieber/Kardashian are trusted for, but I doubt it’s for the same thing as the Times.  Again, the implied object makes all the difference. (Full disclosure: I confess, I’m hooked on TweetLevel myself).

Which brings us to an interesting blogpost, Employee Trust in Its Death Throes, by Derek Irvine in the Human Capital League.  

Employee trust in and loyalty for the employer has been dying a slow, agonizing death for the last several decades. It began with massive layoffs in the 1970s-80s when employees who thought they had a job for life, like their parents before them, found themselves pounding the pavement looking for work…

…The result? No one expects their employer to look out for the employee’s best interests.

…Octavius Black, chief executive of the Mind Gym, a performance consultancy, warns that while staff retention has held up during the downturn, that could soon change. “Over 60 per cent of employees currently say they plan to switch companies, with 25 per cent actively looking for a new job,” he says. “The risk is even more acute with top performers, whose feeling of engagement with their employer has dropped three times faster than the average employee’s in the past 12 months.”

Well, yes. And no. Employees should trust their employers—to do what? Employers should trust their employers—to do what?   It depends on the implied object of trust. 

Unless we update the implied objects, we’re about half a century out of date in our assumptions.  And you can’t get good answers out of questions that no longer make sense.

What Trust Means Between Employers and Employees

The old, 1950s belief-set of employer-employee trust had to do with a pact around employment. If the workers worked hard and well, the company would/should take care of them. As usually interpreted, “take care” meant, if not lifetime employment, then something approaching it. As the article notes, that myth was taken out and shot several times in the past few decades.

But, like a zombie myth, it lives on. It lives on in articles that still conflate low turnover with a trust-based employment relationship. It’s time to get clear:

The length of the W-2 form relationship no longer has anything to do with employment trust!  

There, I said it. Let’s see why that’s true.

It’s true because no company in the world these days has enough direct control over its markets, customers, suppliers, etc. to guarantee employment. No one—not employees, customers, suppliers, nor stockholders—should assume in a globally-scaled world that any one institution can maintain its current form over the decades required to guarantee any one’s employment. 

It would be arrogant of an employer to claim otherwise, and foolish of an employee to believe it if they did. Yet somehow we look at arrogance and stupidity and see—a decline in trust!?  The fault lies in the perceiver, not in the relationship.    

Let me suggest a different meaning of employment trust, one that is also cited in Irvine’s article: trust as looking out for the other’s best interests.

Trust as Looking Out for the Others’ Best Interests

What would happen if a company really, truly took this approach? In a rapidly evolving world, a company dedicated to its employees’ best interests would be attuned to the times when employees’ interests could be better served by working elsewhere. 

Think about that. What if a company hired an executive search firm not to add more people, but to find offers to entice away the existing employees. Because if they then stayed, they would have re-upped and re-motivated; and if they left, it would be for the sake of their personal improvement. Which a good employer would be dedicated to serving, yes?

This is not nearly as crazy as it sounds. For decades now we have recited “attract and retain” as a mantra. It’s half wrong, and the wrong part is the retention part. We have come to think of talent using the roach motel model: you can check them in, but don’t let them check out.

Yes, there are economies of knowledge, which argue for employee retention. But there is also burnout, bureaucratization, golden handcuffs, Peter Principles, going native, drinking the Kool Aid, and diminishing returns. Companies truly focused on their employees’ best interests would not automatically try to retain everybody—they would aggressively seek personal development opportunities for all, regardless of what that meant.  It would sure make attraction a slam dunk!

The molecular unit of business in this approaching world is no longer the company. It is the person. Companies who truly care about their people are willing to morph to serve those people. Companies who insist on bending people to maintain the continued existence of a corporate entity are zombies who have lived out their natural lives–and we all know you can’t trust zombies.

I realize I’ve tried to put 40 pounds of content into a 20-pound blog here, so let me tighten it up in closing:

The idea that employment trust is defined by a continuing employer-employee relationship is not only out of date, it is keeping us from recognizing the true object of trust in an evolving world. 

You can’t talk about trust without defining the object. And when it comes to employment, that object is changing.