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In a trustless world, where to find qualities of trust

Shifts in thought

With trust in institutions at a record low worldwide, a good place to look for success in trust-building are companies with the most satisfied employees.

A man walks past a lit sign and balloons that were used for the unveiling of Google's new Canadian engineering headquarters in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario Jan. 14.
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As it has done for two decades, Fortune magazine has released its annual “100 Best Companies to Work For.” The rankings, based on a survey of some 232,000 employees in the United States, came with few surprises. The top four are Google, Wegmans (food chain), Boston Consulting Group, and Baird (wealth management). What is surprising is how much the top companies are able to nurture trustworthiness in the workplace at a time when levels of trust are falling worldwide.

Overall, trust in major institutions is at an all-time low, according to a survey of 28 countries last fall by the Edelman communications firm. Trust in government and media has dropped the most over the past 17 years. Trust in businesses has fallen less but hit a low of 52 percent. And last year, the credibility of chief executive officers declined by 12 points to 37 percent.

Well-publicized scandals don’t help, such as Volkswagen’s cheating on emission tests, Wells Fargo’s opening of fake bank accounts, and Samsung’s exploding Galaxy Note 7 smartphone. But globally, people’s attitudes are still influenced by the 2008 recession and the impact of globalization and automation. More than half said the pace of change in business and industry is moving too fast.

Such surveys make it doubly important to study companies that do inspire trust. “The best companies are already deeply listening to and strategically acting on insights from their employees, customers, and other stakeholders,” says Edelman CEO Matthew Harrington.

Here’s a practical reason why a culture of trust can make a difference: The Fortune survey, conducted by the consulting firm Great Place to Work, found that workers who said they experienced a “caring” workplace were 44 percent more likely to be employed by a company with above-average growth in revenue.

What’s most remarkable is the shift in thinking of employees at the 100 Best Companies. Twenty years ago, 56 percent said promotions go only to those who best deserve them; now the figure is 79 percent. Only 66 percent used to think every worker had an opportunity to get special recognition; now 84 percent do. And only 55 percent once thought managers avoided playing favorites; now 74 percent do. Companies on the list experience half the turnover rate as their industry peers.

For sure, trust can be won with benefits. The top 100 are noted for their on-site childcare, paid time-off to volunteer, job sharing, compressed workweeks, or tuition reimbursement. But more important may be the intangible qualities that bring out the best in human behavior, such as respect, transparency, integrity, and authenticity.

With trust so low in other institutions, especially government, businesses can be part of the solution if they engage fairly and honestly with workers. A firm’s reputation still depends on the quality of its products or services but, more so than in the past, so do the qualities of management toward workers that build trust. Those that win over their employees might even make the next list of “best companies to work for.”