Rules of engagement: how to gain the trust of your employees

Trust, it would seem, is in short supply in the UK workplace.

This is according to Mercer Human Resource Consulting, which last week published a survey of more than 1,100 UK employees showing fewer than four in 10 (36%) believe senior managers always communicate honestly.

Mercer head of organisation research and effectiveness, Patrick Gilbert, said: “Employees often suspect that far more goes on behind closed doors than managers let on.

“As well as questioning the information they receive from management, many employees worry they are not being told the whole story and often they read about it first in the papers.”

But striking the right balance between keeping employees informed of decisions made in the boardroom and maintaining commercial discretion is hard to achieve, according to Mike Emmott, an adviser on employee relations at the CIPD.

Many organisations, increasingly aware of their brand and reputation, strive to control the output of information coming from above and are often bound to silence in the case of proposed mergers, acquisitions or redundancy plans.

But when the real picture emerges, employees often feel let down because they weren’t informed earlier.

“Change is constant in today’s business world and it’s a challenge for companies to manage the employee relations aspect of any upheaval,” said Emmott. “If it is not done well, organisations can end up losing their employees’ trust.”

Gilbert said the trust versus change management conundrum is a chicken-and-egg type situation. His research shows where there are high levels of trust in senior management, companies are able to manage change far better.

This is because, he says, high levels of communication are required throughout an organisation if change is to be carried through effectively.

But for employees to trust their managers, they must feel their managers trust them, said Mike Petrook, a spokesperson at the Chartered Institute of Management.

A recent study by the institute found that only 8% of UK employees are given sign-off for projects. “Trust is a two-way thing and many managers are not prepared to hand over real responsibility to their team,” he said.

It’s also important that senior managers take time to regularly walk the office aisles or visit the shop floor, Gilbert said. If they remain locked away in their ivory towers, only to be heard when controversial announcements are made, it is inevitable they become regarded as shadowy figures who seem not to have employees’ best interests at heart.

“The more accessible and visible managers are, the more likely employees are to trust them and have confidence in the organisation,” he says.

Gilbert’s research found that line managers with whom workers interact every day are trusted much more than senior managers who make an appearance once in a blue moon.

But, according to James Fothergill, a senior policy adviser at the CBI, there are signs employers are increasingly aware of the need to meet with employees.

The recent Information and Consultation of Employees Regulations 2004 have focused their attention on the issue and resulted in a rise in staff councils and team meetings, he said.

And if they can’t always meet employees face-to-face, Fothergill recommends chief executives and their teams use intranet updates and e-mail bulletins to stay in touch with staff.

“These tools offer a perfect medium through which to communicate with employees on a regular basis,” he said.

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