Why Employees Don’t Trust Their Leadership

Of 33,000 workers globally, one in three said they don’t trust their employer. What gives?

Why Employees Don’t Trust Their Leadership
[Photos: Flickr user jeanbaptisteparis, Wikimedia Commons]

One in three people don’t trust their employer. That’s according to the new Edelman “Trust Barometer”, a survey of 33,000 people in 28 countries about trust in the workplace.


Among the other notable findings, trust decreases down an organization’s hierarchy: 64% of executives, 51% of managers, and 48% of rank and file staff say they trust their organizations, and employees say they trust peers more than CEOs when it comes to company information.

Right now, many workers have their choice of jobs that boast high earnings and a range of career opportunities. To stay competitive in the war for talent, most employers are offering a full complement of benefits and perks as well as beefing up their efforts to engage workers through inclusion initiatives. Indeed, many employees among the Top 100 Great Places To Work reported being satisfied with their jobs, but also having a high level of trust for their companies.

That’s obviously not the case everywhere, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer. The survey revealed gaps between factors that employees rate as important for building trust and how their leaders rated based on those attributes.

For example, while 50% of respondents said it was important that their CEO exhibits highly ethical behaviors, only 24% believed the CEO was actually exhibiting such behavior. This is a major gap, but not a surprising one, given that many people view “business ethics” as an oxymoron.

However, we’ve reported on how a lack of ethics could have far-reaching effects. One company’s demanding executives who fostered a competitive culture that encouraged winning at any cost may have set the stage for employees to cheat. On the flip side, several studies have found that corporate reputation is synonymous with investor confidence and higher earnings.

Similar gaps existed between the importance of taking responsible action to address an issue or crisis, transparency, and listening to customer feedback. The widest gulf–27 percentage points–was between the importance of treating employees well and the practice of it.


But it’s not just about internal performance as the study authors note:

“Employees want their organizations and the people who lead them to be motivated by more than just profit and business performance. In fact, employees said they are more likely to perform better, recommend the company’s products and services, and stay with the organization if the CEO is actively and visibly engaged in societal issues.”

Why The Disparity Between Leadership Attributes And Actual Practice?

Christopher Hannegan, executive vice president and U.S. practice chair for employee engagement, an author of the study, tells Fast Company that CEOs are not connecting with their workers in the right way.

“Our study shows employees want to really understand who their CEOs are at a personal level, including the values that drive them, at levels higher than the general public want to understand CEOs,” Hannegan explains. “Employees want to know their CEOs as people,” he adds. Indeed, 80% percent of employees said they wanted to better understand a CEO’s personal values, he says, while 73% wanted to know about obstacles the CEO has overcome, and 68% said they wanted to hear about a CEO’s personal success story.

Could this need for personal information stem from the proliferation of social media updates? After all, executives are often encouraged to take to social channels to shape their image and the company’s brand.

“Your hypothesis is possible, but our data doesn’t support it,” Hannegan argues, even though he thinks that appropriate use of social media directed at employees would actually help them focus on the values-based topics that employees are interested in hearing most about.
“More broadly, our study also shows employees think CEOs focus too much on short-term business performance, and not enough on long-term impact and job creation,” Hannegan says.

The study concludes that the findings of the Trust Barometer are “deeply disturbing,” in part because many leaders still believe that they speak and their employees follow.


“That the hierarchical, non-democratic structures of the organization result in obedient employees who toe the party line and automatically extol the virtues of their employer,” they write, “in truth could not be more different.”

What the Trust Barometer data indicates is that leaders have lost control over the provision of information about their organization, they say. “There is now a disconnect between authority and influence.” This is a problem because the study authors say that an employee is the most trusted spokesperson for a business. “And as long as employees don’t trust their employers, employers cannot trust what their employees say.”


About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.