Companies overestimate their employees’ trust. That’s bad for business, PwC says.

While trust remains key to a company’s bottom line, executives “continue to overestimate” just how much their employees trust them — a gap that has only grown in recent years, according to PwC’s 2024 Trust Survey, released March 12.

While 86% of the 548 business executives surveyed said they believe employee trust is high, only 67% of the 2,039 employees surveyed said they highly trust their employers, a gap of 18 points that is “higher than in the past.”

What is behind that gap? For one thing, companies may not have proper structures in place to identify trust expectations or those gaps. 

“Many companies say that they measure trust but, based on our conversations with business executives, those metrics are often subjective and don’t fully capture the current sentiment across stakeholder groups such as employees, customers and investors,” PwC said in its report.

Employee engagement is one of those metrics, but for matters of trust, it is only a partial metric, the report continued.

Curiously, the way high trust manifests in the workforce is through productivity and operational efficiency, which may be slightly counter to how trust is viewed, PwC said. Trust may more often be viewed as key to long-term retention, but “this data shows that lower trust among employees has an immediate impact on everyday operations. The risk is not that people leave — it’s that they stay and work half-heartedly.”

What can be done?

To fix trust issues, employers may need to start at the top. Peer trust among the C-suite is low, PwC said; 44% of those surveyed said they trust each other “to a great extent,” lower than what they reported about non-C-suite colleagues (53%).

“For employees to feel trusted, it’s crucial for the members of the C-suite to trust each other,” the report said. “Only then can trust fully spread throughout the organization, fostering a culture of openness and collaboration.”

Additionally, allowing workers to determine their own work schedule and location may help with trust. For example, more than 7 in 10 employees surveyed said flexibility around when work gets done would build their trust, but less than half of executives said they offer such flexibility. A similar number of employees said the same about flexibility around where work is done, while 45% of executives said their organizations offered location flexibility.

Employers that try to extensively track such work can damage trust, however.

“Business executives have an understandable need to establish that employees are productive, but they should understand the potential downsides to digital surveillance,” the report said. “This can result in reduced trust, which makes workers less productive — the very behavior that surveillance is intended to prevent.”

A little over one-third of employees surveyed said they would trust an employer less if they tracked their online activity in a remote environment.

But employers trust remote workers more than remote workers think, the report noted — reflecting an understanding gap that could imperil productivity. While more than two-thirds of business leaders said they trust remote and in-person workers equally, only 60% of employees said they thought leaders treated both equally.

To fix the trust gap, PwC recommended a number of approaches, including:

  • Acknowledge the trust gap. Understand that there may be a difference between what is being measured and actual insights into trust.
  • Treat trust as “a collective responsibility” of an organization.
  • Focus on fostering trust between leaders as a foundation.
  • Tell the company’s story consistently. “Maintaining a unified story without conflicting messages is essential to avoiding confusion and mistrust,” the report said. “Bring your narrative to life by communicating transparently and engaging with stakeholders intentionally and often.”

“Whatever you choose, make sure you demonstrate your commitment to employee growth and to the long-term success of your team members,” PwC said.