Building external trust by engaging employees

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At Edelman, we take great pride in the work we’re often asked to do to help clients build, protect and at times even restore trust among external audiences. Among our core beliefs is that such trust starts on the inside. An often-overlooked fact is that a company’s internal audiences – its employees – hold the keys to influencing external reputation, even more so than the CEO.

Indeed, the 2014 Edelman Trust Barometer here shows regular employees, particularly those with technical expertise, continue to be among a company’s most trusted spokespeople. In other words, when people are asked whom they trust to get news and information about a company, they rank employees higher than CEOs. Here’s a chart that shows this and more:

Following are a few other highlights from our study:

• Since 2009, the credibility of regular employees has increased a full 20 points – more than any other category – while trust in “a person like yourself” has risen 15 points. Trust in CEOs has lagged behind all other spokespeople except government officials.

• Employees outranked all other spokespeople, including the CEO, on topics related to a company’s culture, behaviours and environment, particularly when it comes to innovation and integrity. In fact, employees are three times more credible when talking about working conditions than the CEO. That said, CEOs still maintain strong credibility when talking about financial earnings and operational performance.

• Employees and executives alike agree that “treating employees well” is one of the most important things a company can do to build trust, yet both groups said companies are underperforming in this regard. In previous years, executives have prioritized treatment of employees as a much lower driver of trust; this year’s data indicates leaders increasingly recognize how critical a company’s relationship with its workforce is to overall trust. That said, when asked how well companies are actually treating employees relative to expectations, a significant gap emerged (27 percent) – among the largest in the study – indicating an opportunity for companies to take a good, hard look at how to become more trusted employers.

• Regular employees are more sceptical of nearly all information sources than executives. While those in senior positions tend to place greater trust in various information sources than regular employees do, both groups agree that a company’s technical experts are highly credible. In addition, when it comes to the CEO, fellow executives cited 12 percent greater trust than regular employees.

• When asked what actions a CEO could take to build trust in both themselves as well as their company, both employees and executives cite “engaging employees regularly to discuss the state of the business.” Perhaps not surprisingly, employees prioritize CEO interaction more highly than executives.

So, while the importance of employee engagement is nothing new, our trust data certainly reinforces the merits of investing significant time to get it right. And, although key drivers of engagement frequently include such themes as fairness, respect, values, teamwork, communication and accountability, one tends to trump all others: leadership. It’s why we work with our clients to ensure their leaders are highly visible, articulate a clear and compelling vision, role model the company’s values and encourage and reward positive behaviours. Building external trust from the inside out. What a novel idea!

You can hear about these topics and many more at our next HR Vision conference.

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