Fostering the trust of stakeholders has always been at the heart of ethical business leadership. Customers and consumers want not only a partner that will provide them with innovation, expertise, and value, but also one they can trust—a partner that behaves honestly, acts responsibly, and is guided by a set of solid values.

But in today’s world of disinformation, disruption, and populist sentiment, this critical work of building trust has become more difficult. The 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer, our firm’s 19th annual study of trust in societal institutions, can help us understand the growing challenges to trust—and what businesses striving for ethical leadership can do to best meet them.

The past two decades have seen a progressive destruction of trust in societal institutions, a consequence of the Great Recession, fears about immigration, and economic dislocation caused by globalization and automation. Today, people are unhappy and uncertain. Only one in five globally believe the system is working for them. In developed markets, there is a pronounced sense of pessimism that things will be better in five years’ time. And fears of job loss remain high, with 55 percent of employees globally worried about the threat of automation and 59 percent worried that they lack the training and skills necessary to secure a good-paying job.

Who, if anyone, do people trust? The answer—the relationships that are closest to us—has important implications for companies looking to operate with integrity.

“My Employer” Is the Most Trusted Institution

People have low confidence that societal institutions will help them navigate a turbulent world, but they have remarkably high trust in one critical institution: their employer. Seventy-five percent of respondents trust “my employer” to do the right thing—19 points more than business in general and 27 points more than government. That number is even higher—80 percent—for US respondents.

This strong trust comes with conditions, however. Employees’ expectation that prospective employers will join them in taking action on societal issues (67 percent) is nearly as high as their table-stakes expectations of personal empowerment at the workplace (74 percent) and job opportunity and career development (80 percent).

This remarkable shift in the expectation that employers will serve as social actors reflects a wider public view that business has a critical role to play in creating a better future. Seventy-three percent agree that a company can take specific actions that both increase profits and improve the economic and social conditions in the communities where it operates—a nine-point increase from 2018.

The Role of the CEO

The expectation also extends to leadership. In last year’s Edelman Trust Barometer, we noted that the expectation on CEOs to speak up and lead change was up to a record high of 65 percent. Our advice then was to take advantage of the moment to project leadership and maximize the business benefits of doing so.

A few CEOs did seem to take up this call to action, from Paul Polman’s push to organize the business response to climate change, to Satya Nadella’s support for DREAMers and stance against family separations—but not enough.

This year, the call to action appears to be yet more urgent—a rise by 11 points in the public’s expectation that CEOs will speak up and lead change. Today, some 76 percent of respondents believe CEOs need to step up. Indeed, people agree that CEOs can create positive change on issues ranging from pay equity (65 percent), to prejudice and discrimination (64 percent), to training for the jobs of tomorrow (64 percent).

And stepping up proactively is required. Importantly, our data shows that whereas there is a trust “advantage” of some 19 points for “my employer” (75 percent) versus business in general (56 percent), the same trust advantage is only seven points when comparing the credibility of “my CEO” (54 percent) versus CEOs in general (47 percent). In other words, employee trust in employers should not be assumed to be an endorsement of the CEO.

Building Trust from the Inside Out

The employer-employee relationship is one of the strongest pieces of evidence that ethical leadership has a bottom-line impact. The public views a company’s treatment of its employees as one of the best indicators of its overall level of trustworthiness (78 percent). That perception will have a direct impact on sales, since 67 percent agree that “a good reputation may get me to try a product, but unless I come to trust the company behind the product, I will soon stop buying it.”

In this climate, then, how can a company’s leaders boost stakeholders’ trust in them to do the right thing? The data reveal a clear mandate to begin at home, by building Trust at Work:

  • First, companies must fulfill the expectation of employees and the public to lead change: address societal, political, national, and industry-specific concerns; help to define the organization’s core values; and demonstrate the organization’s vision for the future, its mission, and its purpose. Companies must define and deploy their ethical mandates, communicate those mandates internally and externally, and then deliver on their promises.
  • Second, empower employees by giving them a voice in corporate decision-making, create opportunities for shared action, and build meaningful channels to share credible information. The Edelman Trust Barometer shows that the top communication topics for increasing employees’ trust are “societal impact”—what the company is doing to make a difference in the world—followed by “values,” “the future,” “purpose,” and finally “operations,” including decisions that affect employees’ jobs.
  • Third, start locally. Begin your efforts to solve problems at home; improve societal conditions in the local communities in which you operate.
  • And fourth, lead from the front with the CEO. As the most visible face in the organization, a company’s CEO must live the company’s values, engage directly with employees and key stakeholders, and continue to be visible by showing a personal commitment inside and outside the organization.

Ultimately, this imperative—to focus on the local by building Trust at Work—provides ethical companies with a roadmap for making the most immediate impact on their closest stakeholders: their employees. It is also the marker of a fundamental shift from a world of top-down control to one that emphasizes employee empowerment. In a full-employment economy, an employee has more freedom to choose the kind of workplace they are now coming to expect, one where values and the power to make change are a given.

This is the path that business must follow to help restore trust in our societal institutions, the greatest moral challenge of our era. The critical work of building a better future for all begins in the workplace.


About the Author:

Stephen Kehoe oversees Edelman’s global practices, sectors, and intellectual property. Stephen’s experience spans 25 years at the forefront of international communications and reputation management. He joined Edelman from Visa Inc., where he was Senior Vice President of Global Financial Inclusion, a business-led, shared-value initiative focused on driving Visa’s growth in emerging markets and delivering social impact. Prior to this, Stephen was head of corporate communications for Visa’s markets in Asia Pacific, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, based in Singapore.