Restoring Employee Trust in What, Exactly?

Tammy Erickson, a thought leader around the changing workforce and its relationship with both work and technology, talks about the issue of trust in a recovering economy. Her key question is “Trust in what?”



Tammy Erickson, researcher and author of What’s Next, Gen X?, probes the intersection of technology and people. The central question for this interview is: what do her research and experience tell us about the “trust contract” between workers and organizations as we appear to pull into the early stages of recovery?

Kate:  Trust is in tatters, yet trust is what we need – that seems to be the consensus among worried executives.  Without trust and the loyalty and engagement trust engenders, organizations may expect a veritable stampede of disgruntled workers into the arms of the competition.

Tammy:  Don’t even try to restore trust — at least, not in the way we currently define it.  For decades, we “trusted” the company to provide protection and care while we “trusted” the employee to provide loyalty.   We trusted in that relationship.   That relationship is never coming back – and that’s ok.  It is at odds with technology today, and incongruent with rapid change. It’s an outmoded model.

Kate:  How can we shape an equation between company and employee that we can trust?

Tammy:  The organization should not promise protection and care if it can’t provide it. If, in fact, you are a job shop and you churn through people, then say you are a job shop that churns through people.  Some people – the right people for you – will welcome that relationship. Then be sure to live up to it!  The company has to offer an employee value proposition that is authentic. If you do, the prospective employee can decide whether or not to be a part of that equation.   Trust only breaks if you lead me to believe something you turn out not to be.

Kate:  What does your research say about Gen Y and the trust thing?


Tammy:  The funny thing is that Gen Y doesn’t get this old equation anyway. They don’t pretend to be loyal. They don’t expect one company to provide long-term care.   The equation they care about is one that gets them excited in the immediate task – willing to invest discretionary effort.   By that I mean, ‘when I am here, I am here.’ This closely ties to engagement.  It closely ties to the work environment. And different people are excited by environments with different attributes.  Some go for high meaning (NGOs). Some go for security and stability (Bell companies).  Others are all about team.  Some people are adrenaline junkies (Wall Street).

Kate: The key is to be clear about the value you are proposing to the employee.  But even in companies with strong value propositions, surely there is variety.  The sheer numbers required in a company of any size demands that.  After all, when you are hiring, you can’t only be thinking about culture. You also have to think about who has the skills to do a job, and the right experience.

Tammy:   If you are clear about your employee value proposition, you won’t have as much internal variety in your employee base as you might think – or as you would otherwise have.  People will be attracted to the culture and the image that they want to be a part of – the culture and image that they think reflects them.  People join companies because they have a perception of what they are about.  When that perception is violated, that’s when trust erodes.

Kate:  What advice do you give leaders who can’t control the entire context – the larger culture of the organization around them?  How do you suggest managing the micro-climate a leader can influence, even when the larger environment is less than ideal?   

Tammy:  The same principle applies.   Be clear to prospective members of your team as to what working with you would be like.  This gives people the ability to opt out as well as opt in.  ‘This is how I like to operate.’  Be clear with each other in a respectful way… when you allow the worker to OPT IN, you have invited in discretionary effort.   That gives extra oomph in almost every sphere.