The Ethics of Trust

This was originally posted on April 2, 2013 titled “Creating an Environment of Trust” and has been edited for inclusion in the series on business ethics. Trust and ethics are not the same, but are linked together as to be inseparable. Science fiction writer Robert Heinlein said “I don’t trust a man who talks about ethics when he is picking my pocket. But if he is acting in his own self-interest and says so, I have usually been able to work out some way to do business with him.”

If there is one thing that is certain about managing the human resource of a company it is that no ethical standard of the group can be representative of every individual. The opposite is not true. Employee surveys are generally aggregated to give a sense of the pulse of the group and statistically we take some degree of satisfaction in knowing how the “organization” thinks. Corporations are legally a person, but they don’t think. Because we collect statistical evidence in order to make management decisions based on survey data, we run the risk of being lured into believing that there are no minority stakeholders. In doing so, we miss the invisible steering mechanism generated by a groundswell of popular opinion. Employees come to work with predetermined expectations. If these are not addressed by leadership that is sensitive to individual ethics, those attitudes can also bring fears and distrust. It is human nature to be skeptical of those with the power to adversely impact our lives and to fear things that are larger than we are. Building a culture of trust is not something that can be demanded but must be earned by proving that there is nothing to fear.

  • Recognize unintentional intimidation – In reality, it isn’t an employer’s responsibility to satisfy all of their employees’ whims. An engaged employee population means that everyone is running toward the same goal, but it does not mean that there will be not be a slate of highly significant personal items that are not touched by that common drive. The whisper in the whirlwind is hard to hear because it may feel intimidating to raise a solo voice to express an individual need. It is important to listen and understand issues before they become a more generalized hidden agenda. A benefit to the individual is a benefit to all.  
  • Recognize the importance of concurrent personal time – Productivity is measured by the sum of individual output, but restrictions on personal use of time can have a detrimental impact on productivity. Strict enforcement of rules regarding use of telephones and computers only for company business is often counterproductive. There is a difference between ordering a spouse’s anniversary gift on eBay and spending hours watching porn, so treating these as equal offenses is not “setting a precedent” as is the usual HR’ese response. It is not “theft of services” if productivity is enhanced and there is nothing of value stolen.  
  • Recognize signs of micromanagement – A supervisory position comes with the authority to point people onto paths they would ordinarily not have chosen, but this does not mean that every step along that path must be selected for them. Innovation comes from individual choices made collaboratively with others. Training managers to evaluate outcomes rather than methodologies is one way to eliminate the impression of management by intimidation. Trusting managers to manage fairly is the true authority to be called managers.
  • Recognize that failure may be progress – Employees must have the freedom to fail without fear of losing their jobs. Many times a documented failure is an institutional lesson learned that will benefit the company and all employees. In R&D activities failure is a step forward because it eliminates one methodology that didn’t work and points toward progress in a different direction. Even when repeated failures indicate that some personal corrective action may be needed, taking a positive approach toward improving performance is preferable to giving up. To do anything else would be to surrender corporate ethics to the whims of a few.
  • Recognize the value of crosspollination of knowledge – Individual career paths are the job of the individual, not the company. Promoting personal growth by exchange of learned lessons may very well be training an employee for a competitor’s company, but the risk of loss of talent is greater if there is a feeling of helplessness and a need to leave the company to grow. The company brand can be enhanced by allowing a workforce of trusted agents instead of treating them as guarded prisoners.  

Often we guard our workforce as if it were an impersonal thing rather than a living breathing entity that can be nurtured and grown. In the current economic situation almost everyone knows someone that has been touched by layoffs and possibly lengthy periods of unemployment. Building the kind of trust that generates loyalty is the only way to insure that there will not be some sort of mass exodus when jobs elsewhere become more plentiful. Even more important is the concept that it is ethically the right thing to do… to portray an image of being trusted rather than being powerful. 

Image Credit: K. Christrup © Leute Management Services, LLC.