Here’s a first. Employers today have become the most trusted institution at a time when confidence in society’s leaders is sorely lacking. In fact, business is viewed as the only institution that is both competent and ethical, according to transformative new data in the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer – the first edition of the annual resource published since the coronavirus began changing our lives last year.
The top eight economies in the world, including the U.S. and China, suffered the most in terms of trust inequality. Societal leaders – government officials, NGOs, CEOs in general, journalists, and even religious leaders – have not been trusted to do what is right.
“The people who are trusted, except for scientists, are more local and familiar – people in my community and my employer CEO,” said Cydney Roach, Global Chair, Employee Experience at Edelman.
While this change in attitude around the world is certainly good news for the business community, it comes with a heightened responsibility for CEOs – to communicate effectively and often with employees who have a more material impact than ever on the success of their organizations.
CEOs must play a leading role to create change
When the government is absent, ineffective, or perceived as mistrusted, people expect business to step in and fill the void, noted Roach. The Trust Barometer has found, for example, that:
- 68 percent of people believe CEOs should step in when the government does not fix societal problems.
- 65 percent of people say CEOs should hold themselves accountable to the public and not just to the board of directors or stockholders.
- 86 percent expect CEOs to publicly speak out about societal changes.
“But it’s not just speaking out,” Roach said. “It’s also taking the lead in creating change rather than waiting on government to impose it. As the only institution viewed as competent, business is expected to play a leading role in addressing challenges beyond the business itself.” Yet this more expansive role will also have a material impact on the business, “so [it’s] something leaders should be willing to invest in.”
Internal communicators must step up
The belief in ‘my employer’ as a beacon of trust – which has been trending upwards over the last several years – has reached an unprecedented level, regardless of the respondents’ political affiliations, gender, or age. “People are far more likely to trust things that are familiar or local to them,” Roach reiterated. “My employer” is more proximate, relevant, and trustworthy than the government, media, and NGOs.
This new level of trust creates both an opportunity and a challenge for internal communicators, especially when fears about job losses, vaccine use, and pandemic-related protocols and infection surges are still front and center. While job loss is a perennial worry, pandemic layoffs have substantially heightened fears. Compounding these fears is vaccine hesitancy based on inconsistent information; a significant number of people are just not sure they can trust the COVID vaccine.
Other critical issues important to employees range from environmental sustainability to systemic racism to professional development and training.
Addressing employee activism and fears
All of these concerns come at a time when employee engagement and activism are on the rise, which can have a major material impact on business. According to the new Trust Barometer, 50 percent of employees say they are more likely now than a year ago to voice objections to management or engage in workplace protest. Key examples of this shift: the Amazon employee unionization effort in Alabama and protests among Salesforce and Wayfair employees about using their companies’ products at the Mexican border where immigrant children have been detained.
So, how can we use communications to enhance advocacy or prevent negative material impact? Employers must sustain and expand clear and viable internal communications to strengthen employee trust and spur confidence in any transformation.
Restoring trust with reliable information
The Trust Barometer, for example, finds a clear link between willingness to vaccinate and good, reliable, trustworthy information, said Roach. “People who practice good information hygiene, typically the more informed public, are 11 points more likely to say they’re willing to vaccinate in the next year than those with poor information hygiene, among whom only 59 percent say they are willing to vaccinate. That’s where you start to see the correlation between trust, recovery, and countries hardest hit by the pandemic.”
To communicate effectively in what’s often called a ‘post-truth’ world, the communicator’s role is pivotal to restoring and improving trust by providing reliable, employer-driven information on the topics employees care most about.
The key is to lead with facts and empathy, said Roach. “Organizational empathy is a superpower” that plays a huge role in creating inclusive workplaces.
And the trust and empathy you build inside your company will have an impact on the world at large.