The most recent global survey into the issue of trust has some challenging implications for HR. So much of our current approach stems is based around our leaders being the font of all truth, wisdom and credibility.
- Our internal communications prioritise the CEO all-staff email or the leader-led cascade of information
- Our engagement or development sessions are scheduled around when the C-suite can make an appearance
- Our on-boarding sessions include a “message from the top” and often we drag out busy execs to lead training sessions.
We trust "people like us" as much as we trust technical experts and so much more than our leaders
And yet, the Edelman Trust Barometer tells us that only 35% of us trust our corporate leaders, whereas 60% trust a “person like you.” In fact, we not only trust our peers so much more than our leaders, we put as much faith in them as we would an academic or technical expert.
When I joined the BBC I was initially horrified to learn that our version of the staff newsletter was an editorially independent magazine called “Ariel”. Paid for by management, written by BBC staff – but free to say whatever they liked as long as it adhered to the BBC’s editorial guidelines. It used to drive me mad that a big chunk of my budget was being spent on a newsletter that would regularly be critical of my latest HR policy announcement. But I eventually realised that it was the one piece of communication that was really trusted. When you have 6000+ journalists working with you, many of whom had the regular emails from Internal Comms on auto-delete, to have a trusted form of communication was vital, even if occasionally uncomfortable.
Marketing departments cottoned onto the fact people place trust in their peers a while back. They’re obsessed with Facebook “likes” or positive customer reviews. They know that we will trust a TripAdvisor review over the hotel PR blurb any day and so they have exploited the rise of social media to ensure that their customers hear great things – from people like them.
We in HR have been a little slower in embracing this change in who we trust
We in HR have been a little slower to embrace this societal change and to use it to our advantage. If we assume that the Edelman research is just as relevant for our employment relationships, then this should challenge us to rethink our approach in a number of areas. If we have “trust in people like us” at the forefront of our minds then maybe our reliance on our leaders for communication, engagement and training would lessen and we would start seeing the value of using our frontline employees far more?
Instead of grimacing when we sporadically click on Glassdoor to check out what our latest disgruntled ex-employee has been saying about us, we might follow the L’Oreal example. They had a big campaign where they encouraged their current employees to write reviews on Glassdoor. This didn’t just result in a 200% increase in the numbers they had on there, but also a much more accurate summary of what it was like to work there.
Equip your employees with a strong brand message and trust them to actively promote you
We have known for a while that referrals from current employees often make the best hires and employee referral schemes have been around forever. But companies are getting increasingly creative in their deployment of them. Here’s a great article listing some of the better ones. But it works the other way too. Who are you more likely to believe about what it’s like to work somewhere? A recruitment advert or a current employee? Equipping your great people with a strong brand message and trusting them to actively promote you either in person or via social media will build far greater belief in your employment brand than a nice careers website. Apple Stores supplied their employees with cards to hand out to individuals who they witnessed providing great customer service in other retail outlets. The front of the referral cards say “You’re amazing. We should talk.” The back of the card reads - “Your customer service just now was exceptional. I work for the Apple store and you’re exactly the kind of person we’d like to talk to. If you’re happy where you are, I’d never ask you to leave. But if you’re thinking about a change, give me a call. This could be the start of something great.” Very powerful.
Some organisations ask employees to induct each other. Southwest Airlines, for instance, invites people from all levels of the company, to talk about their jobs to recruits. Whole Foods, the US grocery retailer, actually gets its employees (not the HR manager or the store manager) to decide whether a new starter should stay or not. After 90 days the team is invited to vote on whether to keep the employee; this sounds quite brutal but actually makes a lot of sense given they're the ones most likely to know if the person is right for the company. Commerce Sciences, a Silicon Valley tech start-up, has a tradition in which the last person to join the team is responsible for creating a starter kit for the next person.
There is a real trend towards peer-to-peer review in addition to, or instead of, purely top-down performance discussions, and more and more companies are seeing greater value than the parental, leader-led approach to performance reviews. Whilst getting feedback from your manager is clearly important, understanding how your team members view your contribution can often be even more impactful. The proliferation of employee feedback apps such as Culture Amp and Achievers show that this method is gaining in popularity. But there is also the low-tech and underused team performance discussion where employees are encouraged to provide feedback to their peers.
Trusting our frontline employees takes guts
Our reliance on the leader as the source of truth is diminishing and smarter HR teams are seeing how their frontline employees can become so much more than simply passive recipients. They’re waking up to the fact that if they treat the employees as adults, if they engage with them as human beings and pay as much attention to them as they do their consumers, they can be a powerful and positive force for change.
Engaging your employees as the designers of and contributors to your learning content, as the advocates for your employment brand and the genuine voice of the organisation takes more than just time and creative thinking – it takes guts. Leaders and HR often find it hard to relinquish control of the message and methods of delivery, fearing reputational risk and diminished quality. But if we don’t, we risk missing out on a huge, untapped resource that can be so much more effective than a small, and potentially mistrusted, handful at the top.