Building Trust with Employees

Can you really build a productive team without trust?  Is loyalty a thing of the past in the workplace?  Consider the following recent announcements:

CEO Who Fired 900 Employees Via a Zoom Video And Called His Employees ‘Dumb Dolphins’ Had A Mass Layoff—Some Workers Found Out By Seeing Their Bank Account” – Forbes article

Also recently, hundreds of employees from a large media company in Canada were laid off in a 10-minute group virtual meeting.  This same employer states “Feel like you truly belong” as one of its core promises as an employer (it’s on their website!).

Stories like these, along with countless others, have me thinking about the relationship between employees and employers – and the importance of clarity, consistency and trust.

We too often hear employers lament about things like “This latest generation of workers are not loyal, not hardworking”, etc.  In reality, most studies now show us that the younger workers today seek stability above all else, much more than previous generations!  So, what is missing?

The fundamental element “missing”, I believe, comes down to the “deal” between employers and employees.  The “deal” is the implicit (or even better yet – explicit) agreement you have about what you expect FROM the employee and what you promise to GIVE BACK in exchange.  This goes way beyond $. Consider these elements; Is it appreciation? Respect? Career opportunities? Valuing family time? Work-life balance?

What is your “deal” with your employees?  Are you respecting it?  (alternative: Are you upholding your end of the deal?)

Does this deal need to include something specific or common to all companies? 

Like vision and mission statements (which is a topic for another time) we are too often tempted to put everything we think people want to hear into the “deal” – things that if we really think about it, we are not really offering.  What if there are things you don’t want to offer as an employer?  Is that bad?  The key here is that (barring any breach of legal or ethical boundaries) it matters less what it is and more that you are clear and consistent.

As an example, Google does not promise work-life balance and neither does Tesla or X (Twitter).  Just recently, Elon Musk told his staff at X to “Work hardcore or leave”.  Yet people still work and thrive at these firms because the deal is clear, and the employer generally respects it.

Who creates this “deal”?

You, as the employer, set the tone and the rules of the “game”.  If you consistently send messages and make decisions that line up with the brand promise of “what is it like to work here” your employees will engage and join you on a common mission.  You will also attract the very people who line up with your values!

If, instead, you are not consistent, then you are not honouring the “deal” which leads to mistrust, disengagement, etc.  How could it not?

Here are some additional examples where things don’t line up:

  • The company states that employees are its most important asset – but then consistently prioritizes other things than the well-being of its employees.
  • Company mission statement that includes things like “family values” and “work-life balance” but then they make employees regularly miss family events, work weekends, etc.

Does this go beyond the day-to-day work experience?

One of the most overlooked aspects of this relationship or “deal” is that it is based on the entire relationship you have with employees.  This relationship begins with the very first interaction (social media, email, interview) and follows through on-boarding and how you handle “the end”.

We need to be consistent throughout.  Consider the recruiting phase.  At the beginning of your relationship with an employee:

  • How do you tell candidates they have not been selected after they apply? Are they more or less likely to speak about you to their friends (or social media) who you might want to hire?
  • How do you on-board your new employees? Are they welcomed?  Is their workstation ready to go?  Do they have a clear plan for the first few weeks?  Does it send the message that they are important?

Your relationship doesn’t start with the first day of work, it starts before.  What about “then end”?

  • Do you end the relationship with dignity, in a way that is aligned with your values? The importance of this can’t be understated.  Remember the two examples at the beginning of this article.  The reactions were not good.
  • How will they share their experience with others afterward, including to those within your organisation who they are most likely still friends with?
  • People are watching. First and foremost, your most important relationship is with the team.  How will they see the way you handled the layoff or termination?  Does it make them feel like staying and working harder or the opposite?

What is their productivity?  How much time will be lost with back-office talk (not just gossip, but genuine shared concern about losing their jobs).  Again, people are watching you closely.  How you let someone go is seen and judged by the ones you choose to keep.  It should be no surprise that this diminishes trust, engagement, and productivity.  Yet, companies still do it and wonder why they are not building loyalty.

Also, although this article is focussed on the “beginning” and “end”, let’s not forget the middle part.  Consistency remains key throughout the employment life cycle.  Things like:

  • Do your feedback systems, review, and compensation line up (see my other blog article for more on this)?
  • Do people get promoted for reasons that line up with your stated values (the deal).
  • Does the deal change in the life cycle of your employees? Is it different with a new employee than a senior one?

It’s all important.  In an environment where we not only face significant shortage of workers, but also where everything we do gets more scrutiny and visibility than ever before, consistency in your actions, decisions and words is critical.

Let’s get clear on the “deal” between employer and employer.  Let’s “walk the talk” and line up our actions with our words.  No 10-minute group zoom layoffs please…


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