A Solid Direction: How to Rebuild Trust with Employees at a Time When Most Are Suspicious of Corporate Motives

By Cambie, Silvia | Communication World, May-June 2010 | Go to article overview

A Solid Direction: How to Rebuild Trust with Employees at a Time When Most Are Suspicious of Corporate Motives


Cambie, Silvia, Communication World


According to the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius, you need three things to govern a country: weapons, food and trust. He considered trust to be by far the most important. He would advise rulers to give up weapons and food if they had to, but never to lose the trust of their people.

The global financial crisis has shaken the public's confidence in organizations and their officials. Suspicion and cynicism have replaced trust. According to one Gallup poll, for example, trust in banks and big business was at an all-time low in 2008--only 32 percent of the U.S. public trusted banks, down from 50 percent in 2004.

The Edelman Trust Barometer, the annual survey conducted by the PR firm Edelman, recorded a slight increase in trust last year, yet 70 percent of the respondents believe that "business and financial companies will revert to old habits when the financial crisis is over."

The willingness to trust is a function of experience. What employees need in our post-subprime era are concrete actions. The Trust Barometer found that 70 percent of the people view actions such as getting rid of nonperforming managers or shrinking the pay gap between senior executives and the lowest-ranking workers as ways for companies to restore trust. Business leaders have to become better at explaining what they do and why it matters.

That's where communication comes in. These days, corporate communication is hardly business as usual. Many of us are dealing with a workforce that is increasingly suspicious of corporate motives, while having to support change in an environment that is calling for increased transparency and accountability. Employees are demanding greater respect for their right to be informed. At the same time, their trust in management is fragile, and their tendency to ignore evidence and continue to feed the rumor mill is high.

Acting as a corporate citizen

The nonprofit sector seems to have largely escaped the global wave of contempt and disillusionment. According to Edelman, "the overwhelming majority of informed publics say they would be more likely to trust a company that partners with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to solve global challenges such as climate change, poverty or disease."

Is corporate citizenship a safe way out of the current collapse of authority? If we agree that a company's corporate social responsibility policy is a generally accepted indicator of the quality of its management, then the answer is yes. There is a strong link between CSR and employee engagement. For example, the Institute for OneWorld Health, the world's first nonprofit pharmaceutical company, seeks new medicines to treat diseases that usually affect people in developing countries and that are widely neglected by traditional drug makers. Its most famous battle--starting in 2002 against black fever in India--was the subject of an award-winning BBC World documentary. With a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the support of the World Health Organization, the institute was able to develop an antibiotic effective against black fever and find an Indian pharmaceutical company willing to produce it at a price people could afford.

More for-profit pharmaceutical companies, such as Roche and Novartis, are entering cooperative relationships with the Institute for OneWorld Health (for example, the institute recently signed a collaboration agreement with Novartis to discover and develop a novel therapy for secretory diarrhea, a deadly disease that kills more than 1.6 million children in the developing world each year). Victoria Hale, the founder of the institute, believes that it is the employees of big pharmaceutical companies, particularly older employees, who are pressing their employers to get involved in the developing world. Major drug makers use this nonprofit to build awareness of diseases that have been neglected, while at the same time addressing their employees' desire to see business conducted responsibly. …

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