What HR Can Learn from the Ryan Lochte Debacle

Without trust, your brand is worthless

By Natalie Kroc Aug 29, 2016
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Twelve-time Olympic medalist Ryan Lochte spent a large part of his 32 years building up an incredibly successful brand that included endorsement deals with four major sponsors—all of which were lost in a week's time. 

When your reputation is your brand, being thought of as trustworthy is paramount. This is something HR professionals, who must earn the trust of both their organization's executives and employees, know all too well. 

And when trust is gone, a brand is worthless—unless an opportunity for redemption can be found. Lochte may soon have such an opportunity, as USA Today reports that he has been booked as a competitor on the fall season of "Dancing with the Stars," starting Sept. 12. 

Trust can be re-established "through admission of error and recommitment to the relationship that was damaged," said Harvy Simkovits, president of Business Wisdom, a leadership consultancy in the Boston area, in an e-mail interview with SHRM Online.  "One needs to demonstrate they are really invested in healing the relationship and righting the wrong that was done."

Lochte's endorsements have earned him about $2.3 million per year since 2012, according to Money magazine. After admitting to lying about his initial claim that he and three other U.S. Olympic swimmers were robbed at gunpoint at a Rio de Janeiro gas station in the early morning hours of Aug. 14, Lochte lost deals with Speedo, Polo Ralph Lauren, Gentle Hair Removal and Japanese mattress maker Airweave.

HR's Tough Task: Building Trust with Two Sides

HR professionals sometimes have the unenviable task of proving that they are trustworthy to two very different constituents—rank-and-file employees and C-suite executives.

"Most people don't feel that HR is a trusted advisor. As HR professionals, we have an opportunity to be able to change that perception," said Leesa Schipani, SHRM-SCP, who works with companies on human resources solutions as part of KardasLarson, a consulting group in Glastonbury, Conn.

Often, employees in particular are distrusting, viewing HR professionals as being on the "company side," Schipani said. It's critical, she added, to show employees that you're their advocate and just as important to show the C-suite that you're a strategic business partner.   

To build trust with both sides, Schipani offers three recommendations for HR professionals:

--Make money and save money for the organization.

"HR is usually seen as a profit drain … but when you bring talented people into the organization, that's a huge part of revenue," she said. It's crucial to understand the organization and how it makes money—and also how it saves money. HR professionals should constantly search for additional ways to make or save money, which includes developing a strong program that will protect the organization from lawsuits and ensure that employees have a safe place to work.     

--Practice two-way communication.

Asking for feedback from employees can be a good way to start a conversation about a particular issue, but that's just the beginning. HR managers should always reply to such feedback—even if to say that a suggestion can't be incorporated, and explaining why it can't be.

--Say what you can do and do what you say.

Whether communicating with executives or employees, HR must establish what it can and can't do, Schipani said. HR needs to be upfront about what information can be kept confidential and what must be disclosed—and again, provide reasons why. Transparency can repair a lot of distrust, Schipani believes.  

"A lack of trust is the biggest expense of any organization," said David Horsager, CEO of the Mahtomedi, Minn.-based Trust Edge Leadership Institute, which offers leadership coaching and trust assessment tools. "According to our research, trust affects time, attrition, innovation, cost and influence more than anything. Everything of value is built on trust, from financial institutions to every good relationship we have."

How to Lose Trust Fast

"Trust is like a forest. It takes a lifetime to grow, deepen roots and flourish but is easily burned down with a touch of carelessness from one little match," added Horsager, who is also the best-selling author of The Trust Edge (Free Press, 2012). 

Simkovits and Schipani listed these 10 common ways that HR can lose trust:

--Always speaking the "party line" of top management.

--Saying that you care but not demonstrating that in your behavior.

--Being unclear in communications.

--Trying to please everyone (which ultimately pleases no one).

--Being inconsistent.

--Showing arrogance.

--Not being forthright about what you can and cannot keep confidential.

--Not making personal connections with the people whose trust you want to win.

--Failing to keep a commitment—or refusing to make one.

--Not admitting to mistakes.

When there has been a breach of trust, that last step is essential, according to Simkovits. In that way, Lochte is moving in the right direction: "The guy admitted his mistakes and is working to repair the trust he lost. It's not just his words that count but demonstrating, over time, that he is making up for his transgressions."

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