What is HR’s role in repairing trust?

Why should HR professionals worry about trust and, more specifically, the lack of trust that many UK organisations are currently facing? And more importantly, what can HR actually do to try to restore trust?

New research from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) set out to answer these questions. Vanessa Robinson, head of HR practice development at the CIPD, discusses the findings.

Many commentators mention the links between high levels of trust and the ability to innovate and embrace change, both of which are of considerable importance at a time when organisations, and UK plc as a whole, are trying to return to growth. Our research also identifies that trust has a direct impact on an organisation’s reputation in terms of enhancing employees’ job satisfaction, reducing their intentions to leave and increasing their likelihood of recommending the organisation to others.

The CIPD commissioned Professor Veronica Hope-Hailey at Cass Business School to undertake this research, which was based on in-depth interviews with 14 case studies from different sectors, sizes and ownership structures, and a survey of more than 2,000 employees. See the full report on the CIPD website.

Key role for HR

HR potentially has a huge interest and a key role to play in all of the above, so maintaining or restoring trust should be firmly on the employer’s radar. But the reality is that the situation is more difficult. When we consider the challenge that the current economic backdrop provides for many organisations and their HR functions, where downsizing, redundancies and restructuring are the reality, HR can be seen to be aligned to the processes that support these activities. The picture is more muddled again for the many HR professionals who are themselves suffering from being downsized or reorganised and are therefore grappling with their own trust issues with their organisations.

Every HR policy and process can be seen as a reflection of the trust that the organisation places in its employees. This is particularly important when we talk about the concept of trust, because trust, by its very nature, is defined in terms of reciprocity; people need to trust the organisation and feel that the organisation and its leaders – including HR leaders – trust them.

Transparency and consistency

HR needs to ensure that there is a transparency and consistency in its processes. An example illustrating this concerns the attributes leaders need to demonstrate to be deemed trustworthy. Previous research has shown that leaders need to demonstrate ability, benevolence, integrity and predictability to be trusted. Does HR ensure that the processes for recruiting and developing talent include testing for and building these capabilities? Does HR also ensure that all employees fully understand that this is what is happening?

At times of restructuring, reporting lines are often centralised, removing or bypassing the line manager. Instead, other automated controls are introduced, which can be perceived by employees as a signal that the leaders no longer trust them. In such times, HR needs to be actively involved and should encourage employee communications, whereby employees receive clear frequent messages with any spin taken out. HR also has a role in ensuring that any communication with employees is genuine two-way dialogue, such that employees feel that their concerns are being listened to.

Criticism of HR

Vanessa Robinson

Vanessa Robinson, head of HR practice development, CIPD.

In practice, our research highlighted some criticisms of the role of the HR function and the way it is aligned to organisational aims, with little presence within local workplaces. This could well have resulted from HR’s intentions to reposition itself as “strategic business partner” or similar. But the result can be that employees don’t feel that HR is there to listen to them. Our research suggests that one way to redress this balance is for HR to reconsider its position at a strategic level in terms of an active stewardship role or guardian of ethical and integrity issues.

If it is to act as “chief integrity officer” or conscience of the organisation, HR must be prepared to stand up and challenge other senior leaders when they act in ways that might call into question the long-term reputation of the organisation. Previous CIPD research, for example our Next Generation HR research, also highlighted this future role for HR. What seems imperative now is for HR to be prepared to step up to the challenge and become guardians of matters of trust and integrity. If HR does not, other functions will and HR might have to accept a more limited influence from a narrower remit.

Building trust

Finally, a couple of reflections emerging from the research: of the 14 organisations that took part in the research, it was very encouraging to see that a number had managed to maintain or even build trust despite the last few years’ economic troubles. It was also good to see the contribution that HR had made in these stories.

In this article, we have highlighted HR’s role in trust. HR is only one of the contributors in restoring or maintaining trust, however. To understand the contribution of other key players, such as leaders, line managers, customers and the organisation itself, see the full research report on the CIPD website.

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