Who’s fooling who?

Trust between employers and staff is the key to boosting
accountability and responsibility in the workplace, but in reality neither keep
to their side of the bargain. Worse still, the techniques used to foster trust
often have the opposite effect. Stephen Overell looks at the latest research

Several centuries before the era of suspicion and performance indicators,
the philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal noted that "mutual
cheating is the foundation of society". Maybe he was thinking about work.
A recent survey of 400 employees from the online recruitment firm Fish4Jobs
suggests expenses fraud is rife.1

Outrageous cheats include the marketing director who bought his wedding
shoes on a company credit card, the office manager who sold a laptop computer
he left out of a firm’s audit, the worker who took his dry cleaning on a
business trip to have it charged to his employers, and the business consultant
who extended a work-related stay at London’s Savoy Hotel.

In addition, a majority of office workers said they had taken home office
stationery or put personal letters through the company mail system.

There is no other word for this apart from theft, yet it has become so
normalised and so widely accepted that it seems faintly priggish to think it
wrong. According to some studies a third of people steal from their employers2
– infinitely more than the rate of criminality in the population as a whole.
Yet such fiddles are rarely perceived as crime. They are either seen as
legitimate perks or as ‘wages in kind’ for other dissatisfactions – a form of
pre-emptive revenge.

All fraud is a mixture of motive, opportunity and personal rationale. And
the belief that employers are fooling them one way or another with hollow
commitments acts as a powerful driver for employees to cheat. Promises made at
work operate on similar logic to fishing quotas: there is no greater incentive
for over-fishing than the conviction that no one is abiding by the quotas. So
it comes as little surprise to learn that just 11 per cent of workers believe
what their employers tell them.3

As Onora O’Neill argued in this year’s Reith lectures,4 the methods many
organisations now use to encourage accountability and responsibility at work –
regulation, targets, mission statements, performance indicators and penalty
clauses – actually seem to be achieving the opposite. They foster mutual
distrust and suspicion of being cheated; the prevalence of tools designed to
ensure trust indicates its absence.

Double-dealing by employers, meanwhile, takes two forms: it emerges either
as massive greed and venality, of the sort now being uncovered on Wall Street;
or it comes as institutional crookedness that employers tend to get away with,
such as fiddling the rules when they are inconvenient and underhand, or unjust
HR policies. The 28 per cent pay rise FTSE 100 chief executives have awarded
themselves certainly figures on the duplicity radar – as do the on-going
scandals in the City of London about unequal pay between men and women.

Perhaps more common is the way that best practice principles are quietly
junked whenever they clash with short-term contingencies. Expecting commitment
from employees, but not feeling obliged to offer job security, for instance. Or
the way so many organisations claim to advertise all positions in the name of
fairness and open recruitment, but wangle favourites into choice roles when the
whim strikes.

For practical reasons of ‘he who pays the piper’, employer cheating is
under-surveyed by the usual gaggle of workplace pundits and soothsayers. Yet it
is interesting that today’s fashionable credos of ‘living the employer brand’
and ‘corporate social responsibility’ make great play of ethical behaviour as a
source of differentiation. Different from what, exactly? Old corruption?

Naturally, trust is one of those milksop notions that everyone would like
more of. Post-Enron, much is being written about building trust with employers
rightly expected to take the lead. Yet in many ways understanding of the
subject has evolved little since Douglas McGregor (of Theory X and Theory Y
fame) first began to look at it in the 1960s.5 It was McGregor who first showed
how much trust was a long-term project in which words play a limited part – two
factors that make it difficult for modern organisations. "Trust is a
delicate property of human relationships," he said. "Even a single
action – perhaps misunderstood – can have powerful effects."

What is trust in the context of work? McGregor put the standard very high:
"Trust means ‘I know that you will not – deliberately or accidentally,
consciously or unconsciously – take unfair advantage of me’," he wrote.
"It means ‘I can put my situation at the moment, my status and self-esteem
in the group, our relationship, my job, my career, even my life in your hands
with complete confidence’."

Today this sounds a little 1960s. Surely a more limited form of trust is
enough to make work function efficiently? But the emphasis on trust as a
‘doing’ word, denoting activity, is perhaps the most significant legacy. Of
course, words written down, or spoken are very important in business. But there
is only one way to increase trust and it has little to do with either
communications strategy or employment contracts.

It is, of course, easy to be too downcast about the less noble aspects of
employment relations. For all the fraud figures and the sense that everyone is
looking after number one, the CIPD maintains that, overall, the state of the
psychological contract is "fairly positive".6 Organisations see a
clear link between how they manage promises and commitments to employees and
how the employees respond and behave. While that link is obvious, self-interest
should play some role in generating trust. After all, saying you don’t trust
management and being unable to place any trust, are quite different things.

So what should be the guiding philosophy of employment relations? A couple
of years ago, TUC general secretary John Monks went through a phase of
suggesting in speeches that workplace relations should ideally be run along the
lines of the Christian golden rule: ‘do unto others as you would have them do
to you’. A bit preachy, perhaps, but it is very hard to think of a better
ordinance for workplace relations. In the meantime, many might sympathise with
Samuel Johnson that "it is better to be sometimes cheated than never to
have trusted".

1 www.fish4jobs.co.uk; June 2002

2 Why Employees Commit Fraud, by Joseph T Wells, American Institute of
Certified Public Accountants, 1997

3 Mori poll on behalf of Smythe Dorward Lambert; November 1998

4 2002 Reith Lectures homepage at www.open2.net/trust

5 The Professional Manager by Douglas McGregor, McGraw Hill, 1967

6 Employer Perceptions of the Psychological Contract, by David Guest and
Neil Conway, CIPD, 2001

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