The CBI is to be congratulated for launching its Great Business Debate with its focus on restoring public trust in British business.
Opening up a public debate, where the challenges can be openly aired, has to be the right thing to do in this new era of transparency.
Because if there is one single thing driving public trust down, it is the difficulty traditional organisations demonstrate in coming to terms with the new world where everything is open, and nothing can be kept a secret for long.
No amount of internal attempts at keeping people quiet will make this new fact of life go away – not in this era of social media where even a rumour makes it round the world in seconds. And business should learn from politics that it is usually the cover-up that causes the biggest subsequent row – not the initial transgression.
The era when spin and glossy brochures, and come-hither company websites were believed is over. Websites such as Glassdoor make employees’ views about their organisation and its leadership openly available – and most young people would no more dream of applying or taking a job without reading the organisation’s record than they would book a holiday without checking on Tripadvisor.
Key to re-establishing public trust in business must therefore be ensuring that employees trust their own organisations. But it’s in short supply: six out of ten employees say they don’t trust their bosses; four fifths of workers don’t think their manager sets a good moral example. And fewer than one fifth of employees are aware of their organisation’s values.
Leaders have to recognise that the days of deference and automatic trust are over. Employees’ trust has to be earned – it’s not automatic. And the challenge is that often leaders believe trust is present when it isn’t.
In today’s world there is no substitute for a culture of openness and transparency. But of course this means that organisations have to be ethical and authentic, with the values on the wall reflected in day to day behaviours.
The best way of ensuring trust within an organisation is engaging employees with the purpose of the business, empowering them to do the job you’ve employed them to do, listening to and acting on their views and ideas and ensuring that managers are effective. Again our record is mixed; a recent CMI report suggested poor management could be costing UK businesses over £19.3bn a year in lost working hours, and that 43 per cent of UK line managers rate their own managers as ineffective. No wonder when two thirds of employers give either no training or inadequate training to new managers.
With risk to the intangible asset of reputation now the major threat to business success, restoring employees’ trust in their organisations has to be a priority. Employees are your best early warning system – if they trust you – and provided you listen and act. And having that active trust is certainly cheaper than bringing in expensive PR companies and even more expensive lawyers after the proverbial has hit the fan.