How poor communication can destroy employees’ trust

How trustworthy is the culture of your organisation? Do employees believe your leaders to be credible, trustworthy and authentic? How does the level of trust impact your company’s culture?

Earlier this year I wrote about the latest Edelman Trust Barometer and how it revealed “My Employer” topped the 2019 barometer.

Trust has changed profoundly in the past year – people have shifted their trust to the relationships within their control, most notably their employers. Globally, 75 percent of people trust “My Employer” to do what is right, this is significantly more than NGOs (57 percent), business (56 percent) and media (47 percent). We are seeing a further reordering of trust to more local sources. Why is “My Employer” emerging as the most trusted entity? Because the relationships that are closest to us feel more controllable.

The four dimensions of trust Edelman identified are:

  • Ability: The perception that the organisation is good at what it does
  • Integrity: The conviction that it is honest
  • Dependability: The expectation that it will keep its promises
  • Purpose: The sentiment that it is trying hard to have a positive impact on society.

How does your company fare in these areas? What about your leaders?

Source: Edelman Trust Barometer 2019. It’s a cracking read. Find it here: My Employer Tops the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer.

Today I have a guest post for you by Employee Communications Specialist Joshua Howell @JoshuaHowell916. Regular readers of my blog may recognise his name as Joshua shared his Ten takeaways from the PRSA Connect conference via the All Things IC blog a couple of months ago.

He’s based in Omaha, NE over in the United States and is here to tackle this topic for us and share three themes. I’ll hand you over…

How poor communication can destroy employees’ trust in your company’s culture

The modern workplace has evolved so much in recent years, and people have grown to expect more from their employer than just a paycheck.

A company’s positive internal culture has become one of the most crucial selling points of corporate recruitment. People want to believe they are joining a healthy working environment at a company that cares as much about their employees as they do their customers. Once a person transitions from an applicant to an employee, the company then needs to continue to uphold the culture, values, and core beliefs that were sold to that employee in their onboarding process. As Internal Communicators, much of that burden falls on our shoulders.

More and more, employees are feeling empowered to take action when something doesn’t feel right.

In 2018, 20,000 Google employees walked out of their offices in protest of issues with their company. In mid-July of this year, thousands of Amazon workers participated in a similar walkout protest in the middle of Prime Day! Not only was it inspiring to see these brave employees stand up, but it was also refreshing to think that these workers felt safe that their employer would not seek retaliation.

(See Chuck Gose’s recent ICology podcast about the Wayfair Walkout situation over in the US – Rachel).

That sense of safety and security, however, isn’t a feeling that everyone shares.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with a diverse group of employees (sales staff, administrative assistants, remote workers, managers, and executives) from a single company, and discuss their issues with their organisation’s culture and the communication surrounding it.

The majority of the conversation revolved around the following three themes.

1.Show, Don’t Tell

Each of the employees at the meeting could recite, for the most part, their company’s set of cultural beliefs. These beliefs were referenced on posters around the office, in speeches at annual company events, and prominently in the ‘about’ section of their company’s website. While it is exciting to see a company encourage its employees to speak up, to get clear on things, to learn from their mistakes, and ideally to grow together as a team, it is ultimately discouraging when the employees don’t always see those cultural beliefs in action.

“A healthy organisation could reconcile why it existed with how it expressed itself externally in its marketplace, and how it really was internally,” said Chris Houston, author of For Goodness’ Sake, when he spoke in a recent video blog on the relationship between a company’s purpose, brand and culture. According to Chris, more employees are beginning to question the authenticity of their organisation when the outward appearance (the brand) doesn’t match up with the internal reality of the company (the culture).

Several people at the table mentioned how their leadership sometimes surveyed the employee base without the option to respond anonymously. Many employees didn’t participate in the survey because they weren’t confident that their responses would not invoke reprisals. Despite assurances to the contrary, many within the employee base didn’t see an internal history that would support that level of trust. A company can talk all day about its culture and values, but its history tends to determine what the employees will believe.

2. Offboarding

A more specific issue that the group brought up related the communication, or lack thereof, around employees that left the organisation. New employees were celebrated through social posts, intranet introductions, photoshoots and more, while nothing but rumours and speculation circulated amongst the staff when an employee left. Whether on good or bad terms, no company wishes to lose an employee. While it is easier to offboard an employee behind closed doors, the repercussions can be devastating to a company’s morale.

Around the table, each member of the group could recall a time when employees weren’t sure if a former co-worker had simply moved on or had been fired. The lack of information communicated down to the staff, while likely meant to squash further conversations about the departed staffer, ended up leading to a sense of fear amongst the cubicles regarding general job security.

In the US, all states are officially known as at-will employment states. While some states have mandatory, documented employee improvement periods, many states declare that any employee can be fired for any legal reason without notice. So, when a company encourages employee betterment and development, but staffers notice abrupt departures without any coinciding communication, especially in at-will employment states, it is certainly understandable why employee morale and trust would be affected.

3. Leadership Buy-in

At the same time, not every employee is privy to the same amount of information. It is not unreasonable to assume that lower-level staffers would not know all of the particulars of a situation that a manager or an executive might know. Within many organisations, one of the primary duties of an Employee/Internal Communications professional is to be the bridge between the company staff and the company leadership.

It is not enough for a CEO to stand up in front of the employees at annual or even quarterly events and say that they are invested in a healthy employee experience.

Instead, internal communicators should be working with members of company leadership to ensure that the message is consistently communicated throughout the year. While it may not always come from the CEO, employees tend to appreciate when their leaders speak up and tie their messaging back to the company’s culture.

Being part of a brand

Personally, I’ve always been a people person and a storyteller. I can sell someone on pretty much anything, but I love being a part of a brand that I trust and honestly believe. People are genuinely attracted to workplaces that promote the importance of caring for their employees as much as they care for their customers. Poor communications around sensitive topics within the workplace can lead to distrust and low morale. This type of toxic working environment usually ends up affecting an employee’s ability to do their best work.

A company’s culture, therefore, needs to be more than a list of ‘beliefs’ on a poster in the office. Just as a designer regularly considers the company brand when preparing customer-facing materials, an internal communicator needs to continually consider the company’s culture when addressing the employee base.

On a final note, I would like to point out the importance of staying true to your personal brand. It is your job to inform the employees as well as empower their voices to be heard, but you can’t forget about your own voice and needs. If it becomes apparent that your personal brand conflicts with the culture of the company that you work for, stay true to who you are.

If that means moving on and finding a better place to be, then so be it. At the end of the day, every internal communications professional must ensure their personal integrity in order to be the best version of themselves.

Post author: Joshua Howell.

Joshua joined the military straight out of high school and served overseas for four years. While in Korea, he was appointed as the Liaison to the base commander; serving as the voice of the enlisted airmen to the highest-ranking officers on the base. That responsibility sparked a passion within him for communications.

After returning to civilian life, he worked a few difference external and internal facing marketing positions; writing speeches and legislative bills for a few of Nebraska’s senators, running employee events for the Emergency Medicine department of Nebraska’s largest hospital and overall employer, and then serving as the Executive Assistant for a violence prevention non-profit in North Omaha.

On the side, he writes fiction novels and graphic novels. He’s truly a people person and enjoys the challenge of connecting with people through Employee Communications.

Thank you very much Joshua. What do you think about what you’ve read? You can find him on LinkedIn or Tweet him @JoshuaHowell916.

Further reading via All Things IC

Thank you for stopping by,


First published on the All Things IC blog 31 July 2019.

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