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How a Lack of Trust Undermines Employee Engagement

In addition to dealing a blow to a company's culture, a lack of trust can sabotage productivity, engagement and retention.

​When the COVID-19 pandemic suddenly turned millions of U.S. employees into remote workers, some leaders began to worry whether their staffs were actually working or, instead, whiling away the hours watching Netflix or helping their children with schoolwork.

The consequences of a lack of trust can be significant, impacting employee productivity, engagement and ultimately retention.

It's a particularly relevant issue now, as many organizations consider whether to offer a hybrid workplace going forward. A recent survey by PwC found that almost 70 percent of executives want employees in the office at least three days a week, while more than half of employees want to work remotely at least three days a week and almost 30 percent would prefer to permanently work from home.

"Trust is the foundation of every relationship in our life," says Jen Fisher, U.S. chief well-being officer for the consultancy Deloitte. "Every positive relationship starts from a place of trust."

Trust also serves as a foundational component of a healthy and well work environment, adds Fisher, co-author of Work Better Together: How to Cultivate Strong Relationships to Maximize Well-Being and Boost Bottom Lines (McGraw-Hill Education, 2021). And in this time of uncertainty caused by the pandemic, trust may be more important than ever.

Fisher notes how the COVID-19 outbreak accelerated changes in technology and remote work. "The pandemic has catapulted us into the future in many ways," she says. "With uncertainty, you need trust and meaningful and supportive relationships."


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But how can organizations make this happen?

"In order to gain trust, you should give people as much stability as possible," says Liane Hornsey, executive vice president and chief people officer at Palo Alto Networks based in Santa Clara, Calif. The cybersecurity company has about 9,000 employees who have been working remotely for more than a year. To foster stability and security, the company announced early on that there would be no pandemic-related layoffs and said employees wouldn't return to the workplace until this month at the earliest.

Organizations "move at the speed of trust," says Elaine Yang, HR business partner manager at Lever, which offers a software platform that helps companies hire and grow. So having a workplace built on trust can lead to quicker decisions and better collaboration. "Efficiency and productivity depend on the trust of teammates," she says.

How Leadership Establishes Trust at the Top

A culture of trust needs to be set at the top, and the HR department has a key role to play in advising senior leadership to help establish the right tone for the organization, says Paul Eccher, president and chief executive officer of the Vaya Group, a talent management consultancy based in Warrenville, Ill.

At Lever, whose 185 employees primarily worked in the company's offices in San Francisco and Toronto before the pandemic hit, the biggest change in the past year has been increased communication and transparency between leaders and employees. Open discussions are held on everything from companywide decisions to goals and projects, Yang says, and all-hands meetings are conducted every two weeks with an extensive question-and-answer session at the end of each meeting.

Stephanie Stewart, SHRM-CP, HR director at Reconciled, a virtual bookkeeping and accounting service for small businesses, sees trust as a driver for employee engagement. "If employees feel trusted, they feel more engaged," she says. "Nobody likes to be micromanaged."

The Burlington, Vt.-based company, which has about 50 employees and 30 contractors, discusses autonomy with job candidates during the interview process, Stewart says. Employees generally work Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but the company doesn't dictate what they work on or when they work on it. "We trust you to manage your schedule, prioritize work and reach out when you need help," she explains.

In a recent survey, 97 percent of Reconciled employees said they felt trusted to do what was expected of them and 92 percent said they trusted their co-workers. "That's really important to us in a remote organization," Stewart says.

Reconciled holds a monthly all-hands staff meeting, where employees can discuss topics such as self-care or their goals for the year, as well as regular department meetings and team meetings, all of which are virtual.

Striking a Balance Between Oversight and Trust

Palo Alto Networks has employed remote workers for years. "It's not where you work that really matters; it's how you work," says Hornsey, who adds, "I would not work for somebody I don't trust."

But not all organizations are ready to embrace trust. Even before the pandemic began, half of organizations monitored employees' e-mail and social media posts, says Reid Blackman, founder and CEO of Virtue, an ethics consultancy based in New York City.

The number of companies monitoring their employees has likely climbed during the pandemic. According to a 2020 Gartner survey of executives at 119 organizations, 60 percent use technology tracking tools to monitor some or all of their hybrid or remote employees.

A company that uses monitoring software should be transparent about it, Blackman says. Otherwise, such monitoring threatens to deteriorate trust and create a bad relationship between employees and the employer.

Employers may use the information generated by monitoring to make ill-informed decisions on who to fire, promote or give bonuses to, he says. Such data often provides insight into the quantity, rather than the quality, of an employee's work.

But, Blackman says, "It's not crazy for employers to be concerned about employees working less and producing less. It's an entirely reasonable fear."

Monitoring also can be used to weed out unethical behavior or to protect a company's bottom line, he explains. But by looking beyond the numbers, employers can see if someone is struggling with working from home and offer assistance.



Fostering Openness and Support in Uncertain Times

With the uncertainty caused by the pandemic, employees "need to trust that leaders and the company are there for them," says Maggie Laureano, vice president of human resources for the Americas at Bureau Veritas. The company, headquartered in Paris with 78,000 employees worldwide, offers testing, inspection and certification services.

HR can "encourage leaders to be open and flexible with a strong line of communication between the employee and employer," Laureano says, so employees feel comfortable acknowledging when they need extra support, such as from an employee assistance program. HR can also help leaders understand how to read employees' body language and detect when something is wrong, she adds.

Plus, Fisher says, by "being open and authentic about how I'm doing and how I'm feeling, it creates a reciprocal environment. It's OK to not be OK." Just about everyone had experienced a major challenge over the past year, such as mental health, child care or elder care issues, she adds. While such issues have always been present, addressing them was not a top concern for employers prior to the pandemic.

Employees are also more willing to trust and open up if managers are empathetic, says Caroline Walsh, vice president in the HR practice of Stamford, Conn.-based research and advisory company Gartner. Empathy is particularly important in this era of remote work, she notes.

"In a high-empathy-based management environment, performance is about three times higher," she adds.

While some people are naturally empathetic, empathy is a skill that can be taught to those who are not, Walsh says. HR can establish peer coaches who work with managers to help them develop empathy and learn how to have challenging conversations with employees.

Some organizations are taking tasks off managers' plates to give them time to check in with their remote employees or to learn new skills, she adds.

According to Laureano at Bureau Veritas, HR has worked to support employees by offering a total well-being program with webinars on such topics as stress management, meditation, yoga, sleep, diet and financial well-being. "Leaders have really upped the ante in terms of the programs we provide," she says.

Building Stability and Trust Through Clear Expectations

As employees face uncertainty caused by the pandemic and a return to physical workplaces, organizations need to strive to create a sense of stability.

While many organizations have temporarily eliminated performance appraisals, Hornsey says, Palo Alto Networks continues to set goals and milestones because doing so gives employees something to hold on to and brings a sense of achievement.

Organizations also need to provide meaningful feedback, which can help build trust, says Adam Hickman, content manager at analytics company Gallup in Washington, D.C. "They hear what employees want and need and respond."

Things fall apart for employees, Hickman says, "if they don't know what's expected of them so they don't know what to do." It's important for HR practitioners to be clear and honest, he notes.

Adds Eccher of the Vaya Group: "The more you trust someone, the more they tend to show more trust in return."

Organizations also need to help employees trust themselves, Eccher says, by upskilling the workforce so it's better prepared to succeed in a remote-work environment. Before the pandemic, employees who worked remotely often were those with stellar track records who had gained the trust of managers, he notes. Today, younger workers and those without previous remote-work experience may have "no confidence they can work effectively from home," he says, while managers may not "truly trust themselves to lead a remote workforce."

Managers need to give employees autonomy, empowerment and accountability, Eccher says, and focus on outcomes as they work to demonstrate and increase trust.




Whistleblower Laws Create a Legal Patchwork





While it may be understandable for leaders to think they need to monitor their employees' work, they should carefully weigh all factors before making such a decision, says Reid Blackman, founder and CEO of ethics consultancy Virtue. His advice:

Choose your metrics carefully by involving all relevant stakeholders. Rather than make judgments based on numeric scores generated by software, be sure that what you're tracking is relevant to your organization's productivity, efficiency and revenue. Consult with your stakeholders to determine what the best metrics are.

Be transparent with your employees about what you're monitoring and why. Share the results of your monitoring with employees and allow them to provide feedback. That can increase their acceptance.

Offer carrots as well as sticks. Use monitoring to help employees increase productivity or to reward them for a job well done, rather than as a means of punishment.

Accept that very good workers will not always be able to do very good work all the time, especially in light of the challenges brought about by the pandemic. In these difficult times, don't decide who is a good employee or a hard worker based on current performance. Outside factors, such as home schooling or caring for a family member, can play a big role in how well employees are performing.

Monitor your own systems to ensure that people of color and other groups are not disproportionately affected. It's better to implement a policy for monitoring all employees rather than certain ones. Avoid discrimination by applying policies equally. And be careful not to disproportionately monitor those in junior roles, which could impact diversity efforts.

Decrease monitoring when and where you can. Reduce monitoring in areas where things are going well, which helps signal that the organization trusts employees.

Source: Harvard Business Review.

Enhancing Peer Trust: The Key to Collaborative Success

Along with fostering trust between an organization and its workers, HR has a role to play in building trust among employees.

Co-workers "all experienced the pandemic together," Fisher says. "That brought people together in a different way."

Stewart says Reconciled schedules fun virtual events such as game days and regular coffee hours with employees and the CEO to discuss nonwork topics.

At Lever, the HR team holds regular check-ins on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. But they also mix it up with yoga sessions, dance parties and trivia contests. With employees missing out on opportunities to run into one another at the watercooler or break room, Yang says, "we have to build in intentional opportunities to have small talk."

Palo Alto Networks has set up groups called "circles" that bring together employees with similar interests, such as those who are home schooling their children or interested in cooking, Hornsey says. Employees are trained to facilitate the sessions.

Previously taboo subjects, such as politics and racial justice, are also permeating today's workplaces. "Employees are absolutely talking about important political and social issues in the workplace," Walsh says, which can lead to mistrust and contentious relationships between employees.

Walsh adds that in response, some organizations are publishing conversation guides for managers. HR has a role to play in helping employees address negative emotions. "This is an anxiety-provoking, difficult time," she says.

Some organizations are hosting gatherings so employees can share their honest reactions to current events, such as the anniversary of the death of George Floyd, Walsh says. By encouraging workers to share in a collaborative environment, employers communicate that they trust employees.

Trust-Building Tactics for Onboarding Remote Employees

Developing trust can be more challenging when new hires come on board in a remote-work environment.

At Reconciled, new employees film a video introduction to the staff in which they answer random questions about themselves, Stewart says. In addition, new hires are paired with a mentor for 90 days so they can ask questions, adjust to a remote-work environment and discuss their struggles. The mentors provide a safe space for the new hires, she says, and the pairs typically form a close relationship.

"A core value is for people to feel connected to the company, not alone and isolated," Stewart says. "It takes a lot of intentionality."

Since the pandemic began, Palo Alto Networks has hired about 1,500 new employees, some of whom are recent graduates, Hornsey says. A group has been set up for new hires to discuss and share, and those who are early in their careers are assigned a mentor.

Fisher explains that being paired with a buddy can help a new employee learn a company's culture, and it can create a sense of belonging. Being part of a team "impacts job satisfaction and loyalty to an organization," she says.

While leaders and managers are being told to overcommunicate with employees right now, Eccher says it can be something of a balancing act. It's one thing to touch base and see how employees are doing and another to constantly check up on and micromanage them. It can make an employee think, "I feel like a second-grader. I'm not trusted to do my job anymore."

If an organization lacks trust, it runs the risk of creating an environment in which employees feel it's better to cover up mistakes or withhold important input and feedback, he adds.



Looking Ahead

When trust is missing, that can also fuel turnover. A report commissioned by the Achievers Workforce Institute found that more than half of the 2,000 respondents surveyed in February are looking for a new job. Many said they feel less connected to their company and have noticed a change in the company's culture since the pandemic began. As many organizations contemplate a complete return to the workplace or a hybrid work environment, trust will continue to be an important factor.

At Bureau Veritas, more than 70 percent of the company's employees in the U.S. and Canada are considered essential workers, and they have been working in the field or in laboratories throughout the pandemic. It's not clear when the office workers who switched to remote work will return to the workplace, Laureano says.

It's important for those who work in labs or in the field to be able to trust that Bureau Veritas' leadership will keep them safe by providing personal protective equipment, as well as current information on COVID-19 testing and vaccinations, Laureano says. She explains that the company partners with the Cleveland Clinic and has hosted town hall meetings to provide all of its employees with the most current information regarding COVID-19.

For Hornsey, "trust is a differentiator," and the pandemic "has thrown into sharp focus what we should have known anyway."

Susan Ladika is a freelance writer based in Tampa, Fla.

Explore Further

SHRM provides resources and information to help business leaders better understand the value of trust and build stronger workplace cultures

Building Trust as a Manager
Rarely do employees admit to managers that they don't trust them. Yet lack of trust is a pervasive ailment undermining employee engagement and productivity. Often, corporate leaders don't discover the lack of trust until either a manager or an employee leaves.

Do They Trust You?
Employee trust in senior executives has a tremendous impact on your business. And HR plays a vital role in managing that trust.

Toolkit: Managing Flexible Work Arrangements
This toolkit provides an overview of practices concerning the use of flexible work arrangements as a strategic staffing management solution. It addresses the opportunities and challenges associated with adopting and managing flexible work arrangements, the types of flexible work arrangements, and the legal issues associated with such arrangements.

Sample Policy: Remote-Work Conduct
As organizations continue to operate with some or all employees working at locations other than company offices, this sample policy is intended to clarify expectations and avoid issues that may cause disruption to the workday and/or during virtual meetings.

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