How employers can build trust amid economic turbulence

The 2024 Edelman Trust Barometer showed bad news for U.S. companies. It found that 61% of respondents felt business leaders purposefully try to mislead people. 

That can affect the way people work, how much they trust their own employer, and overall levels of happiness and satisfaction with their lives. In its research, Forrester found that people are looking for dependability, consistency and confidence, which can help businesses gain or win back trust.

But the current economic environment makes trust especially hard to earn right now, experts said.

“There are a lot of headwinds when it comes to trust,” said Ian Bruce, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester.

Here’s what HR leaders need to know when it comes to trust within their organizations.

Instability leads to distrust

An overall sense of living in uncommon times has been driving mistrust overall, said Magdalena Nowicka Mook, CEO of the International Coaching Federation (ICF). “In any given snippet of time, we see forces that are coming together that perhaps we did not have in the same combination before,” she said.

That includes a continuing pandemic, multiple generations in the workforce at the same time, and a “tremendous influence of technology and artificial intelligence coming into the workforce,” she said, adding that “people are naturally a little suspicious, and at the same time, not very sure how to navigate for themselves and even less so for their working situation.”

Companies can help themselves gain back trust, or keep trust, by focusing on corporate values, as more workers want to “work for the organization that has goals beyond the profit,” she said. “They want to be part of something bigger.”

Workers also want to be involved in decision-making processes, she added. “They want to be heard. They want to have their employer be involved and engaged in their progress and their growth and career path.”

In order for that to happen, both leaders and workers need to be open to having conversations, a need that Nowicka Mook has seen increase since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. “The demand for a modern style of leadership is tremendous, and not all leaders recognize or appreciate that.” Leaders who are inclusive, good listeners and willing to be vulnerable can keep or gain trust.

On the flip side, workers also need be open in these conversations and “ask questions and ask for explanations” rather than being accusatory, she said, even if they’re unsure about themselves or their roles. 

Proximity matters when it comes to trust

Companies can also work to make sure employees know them. In its State of Global Business Buyer Trust In 2023 report, Forrester found that trust varies upon size and closeness of a person or organization: 82% of respondents trust their co-workers and management and 79% trust vendors they currently work with.

However, respondents had less trust in large institutions like news media (56%) and government officials (51%).

“It’s a bit more complicated than ‘I don’t trust business,’” Bruce said. Instead, it’s more that people don’t trust big anonymous businesses they don’t have experiences with.

A lot of that trust has to do with proximity. “You tend to trust people you are physically or psychologically, in a day-to-day sense, close to,” he said.

Forrester also found that what the company stands for also matters, including “the values of behavior that get baked into the brand, and speaking about how the company comports itself and treats others, and what guides behavior,” he said. “Those layers of things matter a lot, and leaning into those things and being faithful to your values, even in difficult economic times” can make a difference, especially when it comes to attracting and retaining talent.

This is especially critical for 2024, with multiple wars happening globally, upcoming elections, and the unknown about what AI will do to every aspect of our lives, including work. It can all affect where people want to work, and whether or not they trust their employers. “Being true to yourself in that sense matters a lot,” he added.