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Unless we update the implied objects, we’re about half a century out of date in our assumptions.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.   

22 replies
  1. Julian Summerhayes
    Julian Summerhayes says:

    Charlie

     

    This is a brilliant post.

     

    My raison d’être is to see the prodigious amount of talent in professional practice utilised but this post provides a powerful counter-point to the “we must expect everyone to give of their best” approach.

     

    Perhaps we should make it clear that businesses have the right to help someone find a job if they cannot fulfil their maximum potential. Would this make management work so much harder in relation to the latent ability of the employees if they had an automatic right on outplacement (not sure about the terminology).

     

    You have given me a huge amount to think about in terms of my work with professional service firms. I think employees should be challenged to explain why they are only bringing 50% of their effort to work and if they are genuinely not motivated what will change for the better. The outplacement should be a means of last resort. There also needs to be a massive change in the acceptance of the proper lines of communication. Why should employees not have a voice? We all know employees get disenchanted but the innovative employer has a means of going further than simply ameliorating the dissent but to embrace it and to make it a positive experience.

     

    Regards

    Julian

    Reply
  2. Lance E. Osborne
    Lance E. Osborne says:

    Hit it on the head again, Charlie! Employee trust is not about company Christmas parties or bonuses, not about atta-boy/girl crystal awards on their desks, and it is certainly not nurtured by a "we own you" POV on the part of the employer or manager. As leaders, we can never "own" an employee, but we most certainly do OWN the responsibility to every member of our team to help them succeed in their lives, in what ever way we can.

    Reply
  3. Don Ferguson
    Don Ferguson says:

    Great discussion here.  Employee success might certainly be impacted by trust, not that they will have life time employment but rather that they hold some kind of value for the employer beyond being just another number or production increment.  This is always difficult to define because it may be different for every employee, but a critical part of the equation for me includes whether my employer/supervisor cares about my success as well as theirs.  Do they care if my family is safe.  Many organizations and companies miss this valuable opportunity to let employees know that they are important, when research certainly does support that retention and employee success are affected by the belief that they are valued as human beings and provided with the tools and support to effectively do their jobs.  A major support can be marital and family education geared towards helping employees successfully integrate their work lives with their marriages.  Now this may sound like a tall order but there are numerous inexpensive ways an employer can pay attention to family values without becoming embroiled in each employee’s family issues.  This will impact the bottom line in terms of decreased absenteeism, turnover, on the job accidents, and other errors caused by family stress.  The ROI on such interventions is typically seen to be about $6.00 for every $1.00 spent.   Not bad at all.

     

    Reply
  4. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    "…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."

    Interesting notion, Charlie. The bottom line, for me, is that of "relationship." And the operative question is, "Are you willing to walk away from your relationship if your needs or requirements are not met?" For me, this question pertains to all relationships, in and out of corporate.

    Many (most) folks are not very clear on their requirements. Yes, money (in corporate; fidelity, commitment, love(true and real) outside corporate) is one but most of the employee satisfaction surveys I’ve read place money (and its attendant forms) forth, fifth or so on the list. Not in the top three or so.

    That’s corporate. Outside of corporate, when I ask couples if they are willing to "walk" if their requirements are not met, many actually say "no." Hmmm.

    Thus the creation of co-dependent and dysfunctional relationships – inside and outside of corporate. So, here, the question is "why do you stay" or "why do you put up with a partner/boss who cannot or will not meet your requirements?" A tough question for many.

    Reading Don’s comment, one might ask , "Why do you stay if your employer (and outside, your partner) doesn’t care about you?"

    I think Julian offers  a wonderful comment, "I think employees should be challenged to explain why they are only bringing 50% of their effort to work and if they are genuinely not motivated what will change for the better."

    The number of folks in corporate who are unmotivated, disengaged and going through the motions, and the numbers of folks outside corporate who live in life-less relationships and/or engaged in "extra-relationship" stuff  points out, to me the underlying dysfunction of so, so many co-dependent relationships. Folks who stay for the wrong reason (excuse?) and are afraid to "walk."

    It’s not just the death of "trust," it’s the death of the life-force of people.

    Reply
  5. Ian Brodie
    Ian Brodie says:

    I don’t have a lot to add to this debate – other than to say this was a great post Charlie. We all jump to conclusions far too soon when we see certain metrics – and you’ve certainly opened my eyes to a better way of looking at this.

    Not living in the corporate world anymore I don’t often think about the employee-employer relationship much. But when I do, I’ve often kind of assumed that the switch away from "jobs for life" was kind of employers reneging on their duties. Not that extreme – but you know what I mean. But of course, as you say, no one other than a foolish or arrogant employer could hope to promise a job for life these days.

    Ian

    Reply
  6. Derek Irvine, Globoforce
    Derek Irvine, Globoforce says:

    Charlie, I like it — "zombie myth" indeed. I greatly appreciate your passion and desire to continue and advance the conversation on trust. Excellent post, and blog in general.

    Perhaps we should call this the new golden rule of business: "look out for each other’s best interests."

    Reply
  7. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    I am humbled, as I often am, by not only the insight of the comments above, but by their shared passion.  It really is great to when we can still get energized by some positive ideas, and not just by negative resentments about whatever the press and politics are stirring up lately.

    At the risk of singling just a few fragments out of bunch (since they all resonated with me), I really like Derek’s "look out for each others’ best interests."  And I want to highlight something Peter Vajda said, because his vocabulary can sound a little different than the more business-ey among us.  But he is absolutely right-on in talking about the underlying dysfunction of co-dependent relationships.

    Tony DeMello, an Indian Jesuit, has a wonderful schtick where he describes a couple, both of whom say they would give up all their happiness for the sake of the other.  Which, as he points out, would result in two unhappy people fused together–"but long live love!"

    His point is: commitment to a relationship is a wonderful thing, and so is sacrifice–but if you have no bottom line, nothing below which you won’t go, no ultimate requirement of your own, then you are a useless parasite.  Which Lance, and Julian, and Don all point out to, on one or the other side of the relationship.

    Both sides have to have some commitment that extends beyond commitment itself.  If all you’ve got is continued employment, then you’re in DeMello’s marriage joke–"long live employment!"

    Thanks all for great dialogue.

    Reply
  8. Paul Hebert
    Paul Hebert says:

    I find the idea of "lifelong" employment to be interesting because it presupposes that a company will ALWAYS provide a position and a mission that an employee will want and be engaged in for their employment life.  It also presupposes that employees will ALWAYS have skills and contributions the enterprise will value.

    Both of those assumptions cannot be true.  Companies change.  People change.  Unless those two things are totally in sync – it is inevitable that there should be a parting of the ways at some point no?

    The longer I’m in business and the longer I manage people it becomes clearer that we should approach our employees in the same way we would approach decisions involving our children.  We reinforce behaviors that we want to see endure, we speak truth to them when they do something that is damaging to them long-term, and we cut them loose when it is in their best interests (at least functional families do.)

    We would never counsel our children to remain in a position for life just "because."

    I’m probably being obtuse because I’m trying to fit my thoughts into a reply – but the net-net is that as managers – assume all employees should leave your team at some point (either to internal challenges or external) and plan for that from day one and work together on it.

    Reply
  9. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    “I find the idea of "lifelong" employment to be interesting because it presupposes that a company will ALWAYS provide a position and a mission that an employee will want and be engaged in for their employment life. It also presupposes that employees will ALWAYS have skills and contributions the enterprise will value. Both of those assumptions cannot be true.”

    I’ve been thinking about this part of Paul Herbert’s comment for a while because something about it tugs on my sleeve. I’ve always defined “retirement” as “having chosen the wrong profession.” Meaning, that if you truly love what you do, you’ll fine a way to do it or keep your hand in it “forever” as many have and are.

    I know, have worked with, and coached numerous folks both “corporate types” and “entrepreneurial types” who have kept on keeping on in their work well past retirement age – either working in real time for a salary, or volunteering for profit and for not-for-profit entities, for example. These folks have skills, continue to make contributions and add value. These same folks have changed over time and the entities they support have have also experienced changes – some large, some small, but change, nevertheless. And yes, as Paul suggests, there is a link/sync between those two variables – people and entity change. But still they persist, survive and stay engaged.

    So, I wonder why, in spite of change- people changing and entities changing – more folks don’t stay. If the “non—retirement” types – those who love what they do and keep on doing it, long after so-called retirement age, find a way to stay active, involved and engaged in some meaningful and purposeful way, shape or form, why don’t others? I think the “meaningful” and “purposeful” aspects have a lot to do with it. But, that’s just me.

    I think one’s deeper motives, core values, commitment and intentionality are fundamental factors that contribute to one’s remaining “in a position for life” (used loosely here, but I hope you get what I mean…or maybe not) whether it be in or out of corporate. While so many folks don’t stay, change jobs and yes, retire, I’m as curious about those who are experiencing “mid-life crises” at 30. The cause may be the same for some in both groups – the retirees and 30-year-old “lost souls.”

    Reply
  10. Paul Hebert
    Paul Hebert says:

    Charles – it is a testament to your writing that many times the individual comments are longer than the initial post.

    Peter – your comment made me think – is the difference therefore linked to what I have to do to support myself/family versus what I can do when that is no longer a constraint?

    You mentioned those that worked past retirement – I’m guessing that many (whether they accepted compensation or not) would not need the compensation to continue to live and provide for themselves.

    I think we can be more flexible and transient in our work when we know we don’t really need the income from it to survive.  What you’ve described is someone who is no longer valued by the enterprise they USED to work in – and can now explore and find an enterprise that needs what they do well – without regard for compensation.  Most of us (at least not until my kids get out of college and I hit the lottery) have the option to do exactly what I’m good at and enjoy.

    Although – I would urge every manager to work toward getting those things in sync for each of their reports.

    Great conversation here – as usual.

    Reply
  11. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    Paul,

    Remember,  I’m talking about some folks (and my experiences)…not all.

    So, "…is the difference therefore linked to what I have to do to support myself/family versus what I can do when that is no longer a constraint?"

    Can it be both/and, instead of either or? Two years back I coached an attorney whose main concern was that he could not support his family/lifestyle on one million dollars a year. My question to him was, "If you can’t support your family on a million what makes you think you’ll be able to support them on two, three or four million?" IMHO, constraints are self-imposed and self-defined. It’s our (misplaced ) values that often cause or pain and suffering.

    You mentioned those that worked past retirement – I’m guessing that many (whether they accepted compensation or not) would not need the compensation to continue to live and provide for themselves.

    Some did need the work, actually, but again it’s relative…"live and provide" again is relative. They may not be eating cat food but they’re not as preoccupied with, for example, "toys" and stuff. Too, the love of the work can also also a "plus" albeit it does not have a financial value…more an emotional and spiritual value for them

    I think we can be more flexible and transient in our work when we know we don’t really need the income from it to survive.

    Survive is the operative word. If you mean Maslow’s lowest level of hierarchy of needs (true survival), I agree. Other than that, survive means different things to different folks. What some see as survival others would define as lavish.

     Most of us (at least not until my kids get out of college and I hit the lottery) have the option to do exactly what I’m good at and enjoy.

    Do you mean "don’t have?" Well, maybe. "Exactly" is also the operative word." Some folks I know are engaged in a flavor (not the exact replica) of what they enjoy and have even taken less money to do so.

    Great conversation here – as usual.

    I agree and am grateful for the opportunity to engage.

    Reply
  12. Paul Hebert
    Paul Hebert says:

    I just reread my response – it may have sounded a bit dismissive — I was just trying to be funny – inflexions don’t carry well on the interwebs.  

    It was meant with the utmost respect.  

    I just meant that like a lot of things – especially tough things – there are so many variables it is difficult to have "an" answer as much as a "some" answers.

    Reply
  13. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    Not to me at any rate, Paul. Not dismissive at all. I completely agree wth you. It does depend on those some/many variables. Many times we do have "an" answer which is quick, simple, short and……wrong. 

    Reply
  14. Barbara Garabedian
    Barbara Garabedian says:

    I’ve intentionally been "sitting out" on this dialog, anxious to hear other comments.

    Isn’t it interesting that most people will tend to say that they " work at"  XYZ company but "work for" a person. When at a cocktail party people casually say they work at XYZ but when discussing real work related issues, it boils down to their work arena and their manager. To them, the mgr is the  company. Lest we not forget, "…people don’t voluntarily leave org, they leave a mgr".

    To be fair, there have always been effective & efficient individual people managers that have enabled & established a level of trust w/ EE’s. They communicated & demonstrated a willingness to help the EE to succeed, whether "up or out" of the org. They  "suggested" & recommended other depts, roles & functions for development, even if it meant losing Talent in their function.  They managed to counsel  folks "out" when appropriate, without destroying that level of trust, because the implied employment contract was between the individual mgr & the EE. The EEs believed that the individual mgr cared about their development & their success and was providing counsel… in exchange, the EE worked their butts off for the mgr.

    People mgmt today is a tertiary (or lower) responsibility tacked on to the main mgr’s role, managing a function! Effective people mgt is a messy job & let’s face it, its a lot of work that quite frankly gets no respect from the "C-Suite", regardless of how its performed.

    Interestingly, today there seems to be no shortage of consulting $$ (and organizational lip service) regarding improving EE engagement, & strategies for attracting & retaining Talent & re-establishing EE Trust…perhaps the C-Suite should re-think & re-direct some of that $$ from lip service & consulting fees, back towards defining, appreciating & rewarding the effective front-line people mgr.

    Reply
  15. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    Barbara, I’ve been thinking about the difference between trusting a company and trusting a manager, too — only you’ve clearly thought it through much more thoroughly and expressed it better than I would have. Consider me to be clapping and yelling ‘hear, hear!" over here.

    Charlie, I especially enjoy your posts where you pick up on a trust topic in the news, and you set about to define the terms used and a parameters of the discussion. (I find it a little frightening that so few people seem to do this!) Thank you for "defining the object of trust" here.

    (I wouldn’t advise any companies to actually attempt the reverse head-hunting experiment you describe. If employees got wind of it, the risk is high that they could misinterpret the employer’s motives, and a lot of damage could be done by the "creepiness factor".)

    Just read an article that runs with your idea of companies looking out for their employees and turns it into a set of specific suggestions: Top 3 Executive Delusions. It makes for interesting reading. It’s not a comprehensive list, but I find they are going in the same direction you are.

     

     

    Reply
  16. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Barbara and Shaula,

    I think you’re both way right. We have lost basically the sense of the individual.  I noticed it again very strongly at a recent event with some MBA students, and hope to blog about it later this week. 

    It is massively not in vogue these days to notice the human element; yet there it is, it hasn’t gone away.  Barbara’s quite right, and she’s got plenty of industry data and studies to back it up: people don’t leave companies, they leave managers.  We forget that so often.

    Reply
  17. Barbara Garabedian
    Barbara Garabedian says:

    Shaula, thanks for the Top Three Exec Delusions. I alternated between laughing & crying, starting w/ #1, "…We’re so busy cutting expenses that we can’t afford to…cut expenses?" If it weren’t so sad & true, it could be hilarious!

    Reply
  18. Kevin
    Kevin says:

    A lot of responses – certainly reflects a topic which a great many people have a view about. A couple of brief comments:

    I was one told "you get the best out of somebody looking for their next job" and the idea of a talent pool which we all nurture and therefore have a right to fish requires a little faith, so please lets have some!

    Have a look at what Martin Seligman (Authentic Happiness) has to say about getting the best out of people – its when they are doing what they are good at. We have a responsibility to facilitate this where we can and, where we cannot, to support colleagues finding where they can. 

    Perhaps the high level of reported sickness (CIPD and Simply Health report) should be made compulsory reading for managers who complain about staff absence etc.

    My own company has one aim – to be the best we can be. That is the aim for our employees too. 

    Kev

    Reply
  19. Kavita
    Kavita says:

    Thanks Charles. The article is quite interesting. This is quite similar to what Vineet Nayar has talked about in his book, ‘’ Employees First, Customers Second’’. Organizational trust is very crucial for the progress and smooth running of any organization, where employers should look out for their employees’ best interests.

    Reply

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