Does Your Company Trust Its Employees?

In recent years I’ve wondered why the toilet paper and paper towels in the bathrooms in office buildings are locked up rather than on freestanding rolls like you would find in a home. I asked someone once and I was told there was a concern that freestanding rolls of toilet paper and paper towels would invite theft. The idea that employees—my own colleagues even—would make off with rolls of toilet paper and paper towels, if only they had the chance, was hilarious and unbelievable to me. But it sounds like there is a real trust problem in the workplace.

A blog I recently came across by James Adonis notes the rampant mistrust in the workforce: “I know several employers who easily could offer staff convenient working arrangements, such as the opportunity to work from home every now and then, but they won’t do it. For the same reason. Trust. If they can’t see what their employees are doing, they have little faith they’re doing the right thing.”

What Adonis points out is something I’ve noticed myself. For instance, why is it that so many companies have a system on their intranet for registering time off? Obviously, they don’t trust employees or even the employees’ managers to accurately track this. What’s silly to me is if the employee is a high-performer with a great track record, then who cares? The company trusts employees enough to carry out important work, and yet doesn’t trust them enough to manage their time? In this case, the trust issue is poorly thought out or the result of unclear thinking: You trusted the employee enough to hire her and she has proven the ability to complete high-quality work on time. Once that basic trust has been established, not trusting her to manage her days off no longer makes sense.

Money spent on business travel and for a business unit’s expenses is similar. A complex bureaucracy usually is set up to monitor and track all money spent. It’s true that even high-performing employees can be tempted to steal, but at least for the payment of invoices under $500, do so many people really need to sign off? For relatively small amounts, can’t an employee who has reached a level at the company in which he is managing outside contributors be trusted to sign off on the invoice himself and submit it to accounts payable? In business travel, I’m amazed at how often receipts for even the smallest expenses are expected. On the one hand, it is important to guard against theft, but on the other hand, you have to have some faith in the people you hired and usually background- and reference-checked prior to hiring. Is the fear that they suddenly will decide to become a thief now that they work for your company? What does that say about the culture of your company that it could have such an effect on a person?

Trust is reciprocal. When you show you don’t trust your employees, you can expect them to respond in kind. You may be surprised at how little they trust you. As much as employers demonstrate mistrust of employees, employees have reason to be mistrustful themselves. How many times, after all, does a person get promised a career plan in a hiring interview that turns out not to be the reality, even after the employee performs strongly?

Another common source of mistrust for employees is watching layoffs, and seeing how often the manager and others know employees will lose their jobs well in advance and yet lead employees to believe they have years ahead of them at the company.

It’s true that employees could steal the toilet paper, order a dozen pizzas for their friends, and address invoices to themselves, but when you think about it, don’t they have more to be suspicious of than the company?

Trainers and Human Resources executives can help by making honest communication between employees and managers, and the company as a whole and its executives, part of all training programs—from orientation through executive leadership seminars. For instance, in orientation, employees should be taught how to have difficult conversations with their manager, and managers should be taught an effective way to take issues of concern to executive leadership.

One thing a company, which I was otherwise unhappy with, did right was send updates to employees about pay increases or the lack thereof. About twice a year, this company would send a note to all employees letting them know whether pay increases would be possible, and if they would not, the reason why. This kind of open communication helps prevent resentment—and mistrust—by explaining the bigger picture behind executive decisions.

How does your company show trust toward employees? What is the best way for a company to balance trusting employees with protecting itself?