Work dynamics   //   February 19, 2024

‘It’s a landmine’: Why does no one trust each other at work?

This article is one of a six-part editorial series that will examine the importance of work relationships and how social dynamics are evolving between coworkers, peers, bosses, families, and clients, in the hybrid era, and amid the rise of artificial intelligence. More from the series →

Organizations and business leaders are struggling to win the trust of their workers – and it’s a growing problem. 

What’s worse: it seems that the feeling is mutual. 

And like in any unhappy relationship, the retaliation of both parties is harsh. In the employer’s arsenal of weapons: layoffs, return-to-office mandates, poor transparency with workers, and dodgy digital surveillance tactics. In the employee’s corner: quiet quitting, acting your wage, and of course, actual quitting.

Ask most execs about internal trust, and most would agree (or at least appreciate the logic) that it is the glue for strong organizational culture, high productivity, and employee contentment – all of which typically correlate to business success. Most (88%) of the 14,000 leaders surveyed by Deloitte in its 2024 Human Capital Trends report, published in early February, said that an increased focus on trust and transparency between workers and their organization is important for business success, but only 13% said they’re making meaningful progress on that. A mere 16% of workers said they trusted their employer. Countless other recent reports have also highlighted a major disconnect between employers and their employees, and there’s no sign it’s abating.

So, why is trust on such a knife edge? 

Like most post-pandemic trends, the answer is complex. But the tipping point came right around the time employers started pushing return-to-office mandates, stressed Christy Pruitt-Haynes, who has 20+ years of HR experience and is a distinguished faculty for leadership and performance at the Neuroleadership Institute – a neuroscience-backed consultancy that advises over 68% of the Fortune 100, including Microsoft, Netflix, and Zoom, on workplace culture, leadership strategies, management skills, and diversity, equity and inclusion.

That’s when trust started to go into freefall: when employees woke up to the fact that their employers didn’t trust them enough to work autonomously or when they weren’t physically in the same location, she said. And many felt that the flexibility that the pandemic allowed, was being rescinded. “When employers required people to return – that was a direct signal that they didn’t really believe them. They didn’t believe they were doing the work,” said Christy Pruitt-Haynes. 

Then came the 2023 tidal wave of layoffs. Many of these were communicated badly to employees, at a time when the companies themselves still seemed to be financially secure, and the mistrust and disconnection of employees from their employers, rocketed, she stressed. 

“Without trust, there’s just a lot of uncertainty in the relationship,” said Pruitt-Haynes. “And employees don’t have a good sense of what to expect from one day to another. And that level of uncertainty, that level of questioning ‘what’s going to happen to me?’ leads to a lot of burnout and anxiety and no one wants to stay in a situation like that,” she added. The result: high staff attrition, and a gradual erosion of employee loyalty.

But regardless of the hype around trends like quiet quitting, most employees want to be engaged with their work (41% of employees said that’s what they most want, in a recent Gallup survey.) And though AI anxiety is real, many workers also want to lean into this fast-developing technology. They need their employers to trust that they want to, too, and act accordingly.

Repairing trust between all levels within organizations will be critical in 2024, not just for the well-being of individuals, but the well-being of businesses. We spoke to a range of workplace experts to hear how this trust crisis can be averted.

Misuse of employee data is a trust killer 

Communicating more transparently with employees has been a common leadership trope for several years. But it’s no longer just a matter of one-way communication from executive leaders to their workers or shareholders. Today, organizational “transparency” runs deeper, thanks to the kind of digital technologies being deployed (for better or worse). But there are growing fears that the transparency train is veering way off the track it should be on.

A company can now track a worker’s keystroke and mouse movements, mine data on their calendars and emails, or monitor audio and video footage of workers on calls with customers, all in the name of tracking productivity. But this intense form of digital surveillance is eroding trust, stressed Sue Cantrell, vp of products and workplace strategies at Deloitte.

“Today, nearly everything can be made transparent, including workers and how they work. And that puts this spotlight on transparency being almost like a goldmine – if done right this can really elevate trust, but it also can be a landmine and significantly diminish trust because the flip side of transparency is privacy,” said Cantrell.

The 2024 Deloitte report also showed that responsible employee data use builds (surprise!) trust. When workers are confident in their organization’s approach to responsible data use, they are 35% more likely to trust their organization, the report highlighted. But only 37% of workers are confident their organization is using work and workforce data in a highly responsible way.

“One of the things we argue with transparency is you never want to use it for monitoring or AI surveillance with punitive consequences, which is some of what the productivity tracking is doing,” said Cantrell. “Instead, you want to use all of this newfound data to build workforce trust by using it to create better outcomes for people as well as for the business.”

This involves a mindset pivot for executives – instead of tracking activity (via mouse clicks or keystroke tech for example) and hours worked, focus on tracking human outcomes: quality of work, how well they’re progressing. “A lot of organizations are just collecting any kind of data they can and making it transparent and that’s not necessarily the way to build trust,” she added. 

But if employee data is being tracked, ensure that data is aggregated and anonymized (table stakes) and let them opt into it so they know how and why it’s being collected. 

“The notion of transparency needs to be updated,” added Cantrell. “People just assume greater transparency, greater trust, but they’re assuming that this means purely leaders sharing information about strategy or their organizational priorities with workers. That absolutely builds trust, but there are so many different forms of transparency today that it’s far more complicated and nuanced, and we’re at real risk of damaging trust. If we don’t get this balance right,” she said.

Ensuring trust starts from the top

Steve Hyde, London-based founder and CEO of 360xec Executive Search, a headhunting firm that specializes in C-suite executive placements, agrees that repairing trust within businesses needs some urgent attention. “Part of the challenge of trust is that it doesn’t exist within the C-suite itself,” he said. “C-suites are not as functional as they would like to think they are. It’s a lonely place in the C-suite.”

That, plus the inherent belief among C-suite executives that their employees should trust them because of their position and influence within the business, is part of the issue, stressed Hyde. “You [executive leaders] have no right to that. Your word is no more important than theirs in its subject matter and you are no more trustworthy than they are until you’ve earned the right to that trust,” he said. Ensuring your behavior is consistent will get you on the right path to securing more trust among employees, he stressed.

Leaning into what employees need, also has to be a cultural imperative that the full executive team embraces, not just HR. That way, people-centric strategy is less likely to be dismissed by more cynical executives only interested in hard business metrics – and not in how the two are linked.

In that sense, CHROs and CIOs need to trust each other more, to work more closely together to achieve the same goals, stressed Cantrell. Deloitte’s Human Capital Trends report refers to this concept as “boundaryless HR.” Typically HR is the guardian of the privacy angle of worker data, along with risk. But it’s usually the IT departments calling the shots on what worker data is being tracked, stressed Cantrell.

“They [HR] don’t need to do it in a vacuum,” she said. HR needs to work in very close collaboration with IT, with the business, with workers themselves as the other dimension of what we call boundaryless HR – breaking down the boundaries between HR leaders and workers themselves to co-create the practices. If we’re going to have transparency practices and policies around worker data. We need to involve the workers themselves in creating them.”

Share the success with employees

We’re all guilty of overusing sweeping generalizations when it comes to the attitudes different generations have toward work. But it’s not just Gen Z workers who feel unsupported in their career development, according to a report from HR consultancy INTOO and Workplace Intelligence, published last week. Two-thirds (63%) of workers said their employer cares more about their productivity than their career development, and 54% feel completely on their own at their organization when it comes to their career development. And 25% of employees — and 44% of Gen Z workers — say they’ll likely quit within the next six months as a direct result, per the same report, which surveyed 800 HR leaders and 800 full-time employees in the U.S.

“There is a leveling up now of employees who are looking for something more,” said Mira Greenland, CRO of INTOO. “[We’re] wanting more out of our jobs and the balance that we all want in our lives, whether it’s post Covid or this new Gen Z mindset of not just looking for a job but a path that aligns with their values and ambition.”

Part of that is flexibility in their working schedules, and for others, those rewards mean proper development. The INTOO report also highlighted that 46% of employees said their manager doesn’t know how to help them with their career development. “You have to understand how to build trust, you have to understand how to coach your people, instead of just supervising them,” said Greenland.

Greenland referenced a recent conversation she had with an employer about training investment. Their reasoning for less investment was that employees simply don’t stay long enough in the company to warrant it as much. In the past, when people stayed 10+ years, that investment trade-off was more clear. Now, some employers perceive it as a losing battle – they invest in training only to find the person leaving to use these new skills for the benefit of another company. But she advises that they drop this way of thinking. 

The reality is, the employer-employee relationship needs some real attention. Hyde – who is also a board director at numerous startups including biotech company Tensei – has a handy way to remember each critical link in the employer’s value supply chain: B to E to B to G to C. “Realize the communication with your employees, to your business partners, to government where necessary and to citizens. Citizens put government in place, governments can influence your business, your business partners can be influenced by government, which will influence your business, and the most influential thing on your business for your employees. On that basis, look after your employees, talk to them, be open with them, be honest with them is their business, not just your business.”