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  • Writer's pictureYoram Solomon, PhD

Does HR have a TRUST Problem?

The HR professional is ideally positioned to build trust in the organization, but to do that, they must first be trusted by the people they should be helping.

However, a 2022 Crucial Learning survey showed that 75% of employees don’t trust their HR leader cares about their needs. Only 9% felt that their HR leader would advocate for them, and 47% didn’t feel safe confiding in or getting assistance from the HR leader.

One of the HR functions is to care for the employee’s welfare, and some would say that it’s the most critical function. Given the impact of engaged employees on the organization’s success, you couldn’t argue with that.

This article discusses why HR is not trusted as much as it should be, what are the symptoms of HR not being trusted, and what they can do to be trusted.

Why don’t they trust HR?

HR professionals are caught between a rock and a hard place. In a post on the SHRM blog titled “Why HR Doesn’t Exist to Help Employees,” an HR director is quoted saying, “I truly am struggling and considering leaving my HR director role as I am constantly being reprimanded for looking out for the best interests of the employees.”

That should make you wonder, what is the role of the Human Resources function in the organization? Different publications offer different answers to this question. Perhaps the most succinct one, from ADP, provides the following as the role of HR:

  • Administrator: Running payroll, writing job descriptions, creating workplace policies, and procuring benefits packages are typical of HR administration.

  • Change manager: HR professionals must monitor regulations and communicate policy or procedural changes with employees to help support compliance.

  • Personnel manager: Managing people entails resolving conflicts, overseeing training and development, and fostering employee engagement.

  • They further state, “Human resource management is the strategic approach to nurturing and supporting employees and ensuring a positive workplace environment.”

But the research quoted at the beginning of this article suggests that’s not really what’s happening in reality. But why?

A culture of litigation

Perhaps the answer to that question is rooted in the following insights. The Norton Rose Fulbright law firm published in their 2023 Annual Litigation Trends Survey that companies spend $1.7 million in litigation for every $1 billion of revenue. Of the 430 U.S. and Canadian general counsels and in-house litigation leaders, 44% expected the volume of lawsuits to rise in 2023 (versus 13% who expected it to decline), and 48% felt more exposed to employment and labor disputes (versus 10% who felt less exposed). The leading litigation area in the past 12 months was employment and labor (65%), more than contract, regulatory, cybersecurity, class actions, and product liability.

What does it mean?

The Prospect Theory, developed in 1979 by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky (for which Kahneman received the Nobel Prize for economics) and many other models developed since then support a simple idea: that we respond much stronger to negative experiences or fears than we do to positive experiences or opportunities. Applied to the role of HR, top management is more worried about being sued by employees than motivated by the outcomes of keeping employees happy and engaged.

As a result, top management typically sees the role of HR as protecting the company from its own employees rather than caring for those employees. And when you consider that pay flows from the top down in a company, who do you think the HR professional would serve the most? The employees? Not really.

How do you know if the employees trust you?

“The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one” (from the Pilot for the HBO TV series The Newsroom). To build trust in the company, the HR professionals must first be trusted by the employees (not only by top management). How can they tell if they are trusted or not?

People typically don’t tell you that they don’t trust you. If they trust you, they will tell you they do. But if they don’t trust you, they would still tell you they do because they don’t trust your reaction if they told you they didn’t. So, you must rely on symptoms that indicate if employees trust you, the HR professional. Those include:

  • Do employees come to you with their problems?

  • Are they willing to be vulnerable with you?

  • Do they only share positive things?

  • Does their body language indicate they are afraid of you?

  • The turnover rate

  • Posts on workplace review websites such as Indeed and Glassdoor

  • The content of exit interviews

What can you do to be trusted by employees?

So, what can you do to be trusted by the employees? Here are a few ideas:

  • While it is clear that you have loyalty to the company and its top management and that your pay comes from the top and not from the employees, don’t balance it against your responsibility towards the employees. Adopt an attitude that includes both roles. You shouldn’t choose between them.

  • Keep your loyalty to the employees, and not only the company. Just like you keep company confidentiality, you must maintain employee confidentiality and not share employee information given to you in confidence with management.

  • How do you handle the tough conversations around performance, reorganizations, and especially around reductions in force? Those are some of the situations in which employees feel the most vulnerable. They will trust you if you genuinely have their back. How you treat employees that demonstrate low performance, have to be reassigned to another job in the company, or get caught in a RIF would be known to the employees that stay behind. Based on how you handled those situations, they will observe and decide if they can trust you.

  • Make a case for the positive correlation between employees who feel trusted and who can trust the company and its management and company performance. There is plenty of research to support this link. One example is that when trust levels are high, projects end on time, on budget, and as planned, 45% of the time more than if trust levels are low. Another example is that when trust levels are high, public companies deliver 286% higher shareholder returns (through stock price and dividends). When the level of trust is high, employees stay with the company longer, recommend it to other potential employees, and take fewer sick days. Those are all cost savings!

  • Remind top management that when employees leave, they go somewhere. You may encounter them as your competitors, suppliers, or even customers. If they didn’t trust you (or the company) as employees, they wouldn’t trust it in any other roles.

  • Finally, remind management that happy employees don’t sue their companies. If the company is afraid of the rising costs of employment-related litigation, increasing employees’ trust in the company, its top management, and the HR department will reduce that risk.

(Note: this article draws from a podcast episode featuring guest Fiona Passantino).


Want to hear more? Listen to the podcast episode at:

Dr. Yoram Solomon

Dr. Yoram Solomon is an expert in trust, employee engagement, teamwork, organizational culture, and leadership. He is the author of The Book of Trust, host of The Trust Show podcast, a three-time TEDx speaker, and facilitator of the Trust Habits workshop and masterclass that explains what trust is and how to build trust in organizations. He is a frequent speaker at SHRM events and a contributor to magazine.

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