HR, COVID-19 and Trust

“Over the long term, trust may be the single most significant determinant of a company’s success.”

Robert Galford, Centre for Leading Organizations


Trust has always been critical in HR, but never more so than today.

  • Our people need to trust us to take decisions, sometime tough, that are in their best interests. If they do, they will stick with us when we need them, not just now but when we come out of the crisis.
  • Our managers need to trust us to provide them with the right balance of support and challenge to help them do their jobs in stressful times. If they do, they will do a great job of engaging our people.
  • Our leaders need to trust us to balance:
  • The needs of the business and our employees.
  • Short-term survival and thriving in the long-term.

If they do, they will listen to our advice.

  • Our customers need to trust us to meet their needs safely. If they do, they will continue to do business with us.
  • Our investors need to trust that we will survive and help them achieve their investment goals. If they do, they will continue to invest in us.

It will be interesting to see the long-term impact of COVID-19 on trust. In January, Edelman published their annual trust barometer[i], showing a continued lack of trust in government, business, NGOs and the media. On May 5th they published an update[ii] that showed a big jump (+11pts) in trust in governments. The numbers for business weren’t so good:

  • Only 38% believe business is doing well or very well at putting people before profits
  • Only 39% believe business is doing well or very well at protecting their employees’ financial wellbeing and safeguarding their jobs
  • Only 29% believe CEOs (20% in the UK!) are doing an outstanding job responding to the pandemic, the lowest score for any group (with academics top at 53%).

If we have trust, we have the confidence to do things – from everyday actions to taking big decisions. Everyone is being asked to make some big decisions. CEOs are being asked to make some tough calls to survive and they’re being asked to make some big bets on a very uncertain future. Employees are being asked to make some tough decisions balancing their day-to-day jobs with care responsibilities, health concerns and fears about their futures. Trust underpins the impact of these decisions. If you compare the decision of Bird[iii], the scooter rental company, to make people redundant in a ten-minute Zoom call with the message the CEO of Airbnb sent to his employees[iv] when announcing 1,900 redundancies, you can see which builds trust amongst the survivors and which won’t.

Trust is essential to forming and maintaining relationships.  Losing trust erodes or destroys relationships. Once lost, trust is extremely difficult to regain. Most human activities require relationships for anything to be achieved, but in HR relationships are at the core of our role as trusted advisors. In February last year we ran a two-day event looking at the concept of the trusted advisor[v] with Julian Powe. We explored four key elements that underpin trust:

  • Credibility – we need to be experts at not only dealing with the current situation but in helping our business reset and thrive in the future. But we also need to have the confidence to admit when we don’t know the answer (and then find it!). Never forget intellect is knowing what you know, but wisdom is knowing what you don’t know.
  • Reliability – we must do what we say we’ll do, not overpromising and underdelivering. It is easy in such a stressful situation to say what people want to hear but we must have the courage to be honest, to say what they need to hear and only promise what we can deliver.
  • Intimacy – we should always start by understanding the other person, their motivations, sensitivities and situation.
  • Self-absorption – we should focus on the business and the people, not on ourselves. In the current situation that means cancelling any HR-driven activities or internally focused HR transformations so we can focus on delivering what the business needs.

In February last year we learnt to maximise the first three and minimise the fourth. Today perhaps we need to focus most on the third. We must listen to and understand our people. Each of them face unique challenges and as we ask many of them to return to work, we must listen to their fears and concerns. How we do this today will have a massive impact on how they trust us in the future.








Upcoming Webinars

Trust in the Workplace Wednesday 29 July, 2:00 – 3:00pm

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