In an environment where corporate trust is low, companies need to find new ways to forge bonds with stakeholders. In this context, employees can be a valuable resource to communicate corporate values, enhance reputation and rebuild trust.
As the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer makes clear, there exists deep public distrust of institutions, corporations, media and politicians across the globe, including in Australia.
In fact, this year’s Barometer shows that Australia’s trust in business sits at just 45 percent, down from 48 percent in 2017, and below the global average of 52 percent.
Many problems flow from slumping corporate trust which leads to investors, regulators, customers, employees and interest groups growing sceptical of company claims regarding performance, outlook, strategy and social responsibility outcomes.
Additionally, a low-trust environment can lead to employees being less willing to work for ‘mistrusted’ companies, as well as communities that are reluctant to grant businesses social licence.
With trust imploding, the level of scrutiny is exploding.
While there are many ways corporate trust can be rebuilt, one powerful strategy can be to engage employees as advocates for companies and industries.
As the latest Edelman Trust Barometer notes, despite low levels of corporate trust existing generally across the economy, the views of employees are still trusted. This gives employees a unique ability to act as informal corporate spokespeople in their lives away from work.
The big challenge, however, is to shift the mindset of employees. That is because for employees to act as effective advocates they need to speak up in support of their companies and industries in their daily lives, whether that is at a family barbecue, chatting to a neighbour, or over coffee with friends. This can be a big ask.
Achieving this paradigm shift means encouraging employees to think of themselves not just as wage or salary earners, but as workers who are proud of their companies and industries.
In practice, this means focusing on company culture. Only when employees buy into the purpose and values of their company, they can then be encouraged to become external advocates.
It stands to reason that employees will only be comfortable speaking up in public as corporate advocates if they feel aligned to the values of their employer and its leadership.
The flow on from this is that companies must create workplaces where employees feel valued and supported. Employees must also buy into how the company, and its leaders, operate.
Initiatives targeted at employees are another key way to encourage employee advocacy.
For example, some multinationals have rolled out programs that inform employees of issues that impact their company and prompt them to speak out on the company’s behalf.
Such programs, often delivered via an employer’s web portal, can be linked to key issues in the news that affect and resonate with the company, employees and wider community.
Australia’s traditionally adversarial industrial relations system also creates challenges when it comes to encouraging employees to embark on corporate advocacy.
To this end, it is important to create a workplace that focuses on productive and collaborative outcomes rather than one that takes a combative approach to industrial relations.
The role corporate affairs teams play is also central in this mission. When it comes to rebuilding corporate trust, it is possible that efforts driven purely by public relations and government lobbying may lead to more cynicism among the public, not less.
With this in mind, corporate affairs teams should look to go beyond traditional influencing tactics and play a central role in encouraging employees to become external advocates.
While it requires a shift in mindset, viewing employees as potential corporate advocates and empowering them to speak out, can be a powerful way to rebuild corporate trust in today’s increasingly distrustful environment.