Business and Markets

2023 Edelman ‘Trust at Work’ Findings and the Promise of Social Change

September 18, 2023  • Judy Samuelson

Of all the elements of Trust that the researchers at Edelman explore in their latest edition of the Edelman Trust Barometer, this one has the most promise—Trust at Work. Employees trust their employer more than other institution—than government, or the media, for example.  At 79 percent, workers’ trust in their own place of business is a standout.

The new release of data is good news for advocates like me, and many colleagues and agents of change, working to influence business norms and priorities. Unlike investors, who are all over the map in their expectations of companies, and consumers, bound to price and convenience, attitudes of employees are moving in an important and more powerful direction; they mirror the aims of newer as well as more seasoned executives with a sustainability mindset, and who are attempting to prioritize long-term needs for both the business and wider society against market pressures for short-term gain.

We need these executives to succeed.  Who will hold these executives’ long-term aspirations and commitments to account?

Employees are stepping up – and will be heard.

What lies behind employee trust in business? At 79%, the trust of an employee doesn’t equate to “I trust business,” but rather, it reflects trust in one’s own employer.  It’s a lot like the citizens who trust their own school, or classroom teacher, even as they have questions about public education in general. 78% trust their own boss; the the further up the food chain an employee moves, the more they tend to trust the CEO.

What do these employees want from their employer?

Along with the desire to get ahead career-wise, when considering a job there is a strong expectation for societal impact. Employees want to believe, or see, that one’s place of employment is connected to the things that keep them awake at night. And they want to be heard.

And these are things that business has levers to influence – from addressing climate change to delivering financial security. The desire for action is calibrated against what workers hear from the company, and what they experience from the inside, including how their CEO shows up.

The new 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report: Trust at Work data captures a dynamic shift underway, influenced by the newest generation to hit the job market – Gen Z, which currently tops out at age 26 and which along with Millennials now makes up about 75% of the workforce. The influence of coworkers in their twenties is already felt across the generations on questions of what matters in a job, attitudes about technology at work, and work-life boundaries.

And they want to be heard—want their concerns considered—at their place of employment.

To quote Edelman’s Top 10 findings from the recent data drop, “Eighty-one percent of employees say they expect it to be easy for them to give input, and 76% want to be included in the planning process.”

So-called “deskless” workers—think healthcare, retail, truckdrivers and manufacturing—are less inclined than others to believe their employer is doing well enough on climate impact and on fostering diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

But across the board, and across job categories, workers are more likely to want to be in an organization that that is willing to publicly stand up for human rights, the right to unionize, access to health care and acting on climate change. Republican and Independent employees may be more wary about the CEO speaking out on divisive issues – but in the U.S., everyone is concerned with alignment of voice and values and wants meaningful action.

None of this should be that surprising.  We have seen changes over the decade as digital natives broke down the walls between home and work.  COVID only ramped up that reality. Employees want to work in companies that are committed to action on the things that they care about, and they easily see the connections to social and environmental costs of business as usual. Remember the Google walkout? And Amazon employees wielding shares of stock to force action on climate?

What’s in it for business?

Rather than just another so-called “stakeholder”, the employees ARE the company. They’re also the link to innovation, effective collaborations, the plane arriving on time, a quality product, a loyal customer, and to identifying and acting on risks in the supply chain.  And they will not stay silent about very real human costs of labor and product standards and the long-term consequences of ignoring the health of communities and planet in order to bump the stock price.

Employers can take some comfort in the fact that since 2021, employees are seven percentage points more likely to work from the inside on making change, rather than take going public.

This adds up to a powerful moment in social change from within, especially given that trust in business, in general, is about the capacity of business to get things done.

I hear it as a call to action, but coming from those whom executives of healthy companies already view as allies. It’s like employees are saying “we got this.”

What might be possible now?