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4 Ways to Build Employee Trust at Your Organization

4 Ways to Build Employee Trust at Your Organization

According to Secure Data Recovery, an alarming 43% of Americans don’t feel like they can trust HR at their small companies. This statistic is problematic because positive relationships–between employees and employers, employees and customers, and buyers and suppliers–are what build successful businesses. Any positive relationship is built on trust and transparency.

But what drives trust? 

According to James H. Davis, professor of strategic management at Utah State University, the three drivers of trust are ability, benevolence, and integrity. In essence, when an employee decides whether or not they can trust HR, they ask themselves three questions: 

  • Can the HR professional do what they say they will do?

  • Does the HR professional really care about me?

  • Does the HR professional live by values that I agree with? 

If employees can answer yes to these questions, then you’ve likely established employee trust at your organization. If not, here are a few steps you can take to build employee trust. 



How Can HR Build Employee Trust? 

1. Ensure a sense of safety

According to Abraham Maslow, humans have five categories of needs: physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. To achieve the top levels of the pyramid, you must achieve the lower levels first. Physiological needs, which are at the bottom of the pyramid, represent the basic biological necessities for survival: breathing, food, water, shelter, clothing, and sleep. The second need is safety and security which includes: health, personal security, emotional security, and financial security. 

Employees must feel that their physiological needs are being met and that they are safe before they can start to feel a sense of belonging and high self-esteem. If employees do not feel a sense of safety in the workplace, it will be impossible for them to self-actualize or achieve their full potential. 

Workplace safety goes beyond OSHA requirements for physical safety. It also includes psychological safety. As quoted by Great Place to Work, Amy Edmondson, who coined the term “psychological safety”, described it as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” 

Signs of an unsafe working environment include: 

  • Leaders constantly shut down employee ideas or contributions
  • Employees do not take risks 
  • Leaders gossip about employees and rumors start to spread
  • Leaders do not allow employees to fix their own mistakes
  • Leaders do not offer constructive feedback 
  • Leaders do not have an honest dialogue with employees about workplace conflicts
  • Team members do not know how to collaborate effectively
  • Employees feel unsupported 
  • Employees are scared to ask questions, share ideas, or make mistakes

Growth cannot happen without trust. When employees can’t ask questions without feeling judged, growth becomes really difficult. In a Ted Talk, James H. Davis shared that “vulnerability and risk drive trust.” When people feel safe enough to take risks and be vulnerable, their capacity to trust grows. Many employees would rather hold back and underperform than be perceived as incompetent, and so they remain stagnant in their roles.   

An employee who feels psychologically unsafe, unvalued, or insignificant within their organization will likely stop trying as hard or caring as much about their work. They might even become completely disengaged. 

You can ask yourself the following questions to assess your impact on employee’s sense of safety:

  • How do I respond when employees ask me questions?

  • How do I address workplace conflicts or employee concerns?

  • Do employees know I care about their growth and success?

  • Am I coaching leaders on how to offer constructive feedback?


2. Be transparent 

Workplace transparency involves clear and frequent communication between employees and management. But of course, any company can easily send 1000 emails without really saying much of anything. 

So, to add to that definition, workplace transparency also means sharing information and expectations—and feeling safe doing so—across teams as well as up and down the organizational chart. Transparency includes both quality and quantity.

HR leaders should be transparent by promptly communicating company changes. Employees should always be aware of company changes, especially ones that may affect their jobs. Employees should also be informed about company revenue and processes, and how company decisions are made. The more employees are ‘in the know’ about why and how things are done at the organization, the more they will understand how their role contributes to the goals and overall success of the organization.  

Additionally, something seemingly insignificant like an office layout can alter perceptions of your organization’s transparency. 

Although there are pros and cons to every office layout, a more open office space is naturally more conducive to trust and high transparency. Employees know where the people they may need are, and they can see what every member of the organization is doing. There aren’t as many hurdles employees have to jump over to speak to HR, and in turn, management seems more approachable. 

I’m not suggesting you literally tear down walls to achieve transparency, but you should figuratively tear down walls. 

If you don’t have an open office space, you can still break barriers between you and your workforce. Tom Peters, a management expert, coined the term “Management by Wandering Around” (MBWA) in his book In Search of Excellence. MBWA describes the practice of leaders moving out of their seats and out of their offices to walk around and talk to their workforce. This is the most direct way of discovering what’s working for the organization and what needs to change. It also shows employees that HR really cares about and values their opinions on matters that directly affect them. 

Check out our blog on transparency to learn about what workplace transparency is NOT

3. Give employees autonomy and responsibility

Most people don’t want to be micromanaged. Employees begin to trust company leaders when they feel trusted by company leaders. 

HR should convey to employees that their work is significant and coach managers to give employees ownership over work-related tasks and projects.

In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey defines ‘trust’ in this context. He states, “Trust is the highest form of human motivation. It brings out the very best in people…The steward becomes his own boss, governed by a conscience that contains the commitment to agreed-upon desired results.” 

Giving your employees more autonomy will ultimately help your organization achieve its desired results, and it will improve your employees’ ability to trust leaders in the organization. When you encourage autonomy, you encourage employees to take risks that could lead to more innovative solutions to problems. 

Stephen Covey goes on to write, “If you don’t have trust or a common vision of desired results, you tend to hover over, check up on, and direct. Trust isn’t there, so you feel as though you have to control people.” Managers who control their employees intentionally or unintentionally send the message that they don’t trust employees to make smart decisions or complete goals without hand-holding. 

4. Practice integrity 

You can model integrity by maintaining and enforcing an ethical code of conduct. There’s no one more untrustworthy than a leader who writes a Code of Ethics, but fails to adhere to it themselves. 

Before making important decisions that affect employees at your organization, ask yourself: Am I acting out of benevolence, or self interest? 

SHRM has an excellent HR Code of Ethics with three key takeaways:

  1. HR has a responsibility to protect the rights of partners, clients, and employees.

  2. HR must set the standard for ethical conduct in the workplace, and 

  3. HR must promote justice and fairness in the workplace. 

As HR, all eyes are on you in the workplace. You set the standard. If HR maintains integrity and a strong sense of ethics, managers and other employees will follow lead. 

Another way to practice integrity is to address and follow up on employee concerns in a timely fashion. If employees can’t trust you to take action and take their concerns seriously, they won’t feel safe or comfortable approaching you. 

Doing what you say you’re going to do is not a very difficult principle you can commit to that will help build your credibility and trustworthiness as a leader. This trust-building strategy goes back to James Davis’ Ted Talk. Ability, one of the drivers of trust, asks, “Can that person do what they say they will do?” If you have no ability to do what you say you’re going to do, you have no credibility as a leader.



Keep in mind that trust-building is not a linear process. It takes time and won’t happen if HR leaders aren’t intentional about making it happen. With all eyes on you in the workplace, you can be the reason other leaders at your organization start strengthening trust within their teams. And ultimately, your organization will witness increased productivity, collaboration, and overall success. 


Additional Resources

You can stay informed, educated, and up to date with important HR topics using BerniePortal’s comprehensive resources:

  • BernieU—free online HR courses, approved for SHRM and HRCI recertification credit
  • BerniePortal Blog—a one-stop shop for HR industry news
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  • Resource Library—essential guides covering a comprehensive list of HR topics
  • HR Party of One—our popular YouTube series and podcast, covering emerging HR trends and enduring HR topics
  • Community—the HR Party of One Community forum, a place devoted to HR professionals to ask questions, learn more, and help others


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