Employment and Jobs

How Placing Trust in Workers Can Improve Jobs, Businesses, and the Economy

November 29, 2022  • Maureen Conway & Matt Helmer

Business is currently the most trusted institution in the United States. According to the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer, 77% of people trust their employers. While we routinely ask workers about their faith in company leadership, we need to start asking if business leaders trust their workers. This is a critical piece of the employer-worker relationship. Trust works both ways. Nearly 60 percent of workers who quit their jobs in 2021 did so because they felt disrespected at work. We must identify what is missing, broken, or in need of repair.

The Aspen Institute’s Economic Opportunities Program (EOP) promotes practices that strengthen trust in the workplace and improve the experience of work. At EOP, we think deeply about the relationship between workers and employers and how it affects job quality and business performance. In our research on employment programs, we have long found that job training participants describe being trusted by their employer as among the factors that make a job a “good” job. We recently launched a shared definition of a good job in which a central pillar was a culture of mutual respect. Our recent conversation series on job design looked at some of the decisions businesses face when they design work and workplaces. Businesses’ trust in workers, or lack thereof, is a critical consideration.

Through our work, we have pinpointed four emerging themes:

A lack of trust hurts worker satisfaction and decreases business performance.

At the root of low-quality jobs and job dissatisfaction is a management system designed not to trust workers. Many businesses operate via a command-and-control approach. Decision making is centralized, transparency is limited, and worker voice is silenced. Jobs are designed in ways that break business functions into mundane and repetitive tasks with little thought to engaging workers with the goals of the organization. Workers are not empowered to make decisions, and there is little opportunity to learn and grow.

In line with the command-and-control philosophy, innovations and investments in workplace technology focus on surveillance systems and ways to replace workers altogether rather than redesigning jobs to build skills and leverage technology to maximize productivity. Workers who are constantly monitored and under threat of replacement do not trust or feel trusted by their employers. They are less engaged and productive. These low-trust environments communicate to workers that they are not respected or valued.

The consequences of business leaders’ mistrust fall most heavily on women and people of color.

Low-income workers, disproportionately women and workers of color, report feeling less trusted by their bosses than their higher-earning counterparts. Their skills are discounted and undervalued. They are also more likely to work in frontline jobs where monitoring is prevalent and less likely to feel like they have a good job.

Employee investment is a strong indicator of trust. Frontline workers are less likely to receive training opportunities from their employers. Paul Osterman, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, says hat these companies “underestimate the contribution that frontline workers can make to the success of organizations.”

To build trust and skills through employer-provided training and learning opportunities, companies must engage workers in their development. Daniel Bustillo leads the Healthcare Career Advancement Project, a labor-management partnership that develops skills training for frontline healthcare workers. He says an integral part of his organization’s approach is creating workforce solutions that equally center the needs of workers as true co-partners. Worker voice is essential to the development process.

A culture of shared agency drives innovation and business success.

What does a high-trust environment look like? Worker voice is valued and employees are engaged. They believe their ideas and talents are welcome. In turn, they perform better and are less likely to quit. But trust is not only essential for keeping workers happy and reducing costly turnover. It can also be a key driver of innovation and high business performance. Firms that trust and engage frontline workers in decision making, provide them autonomy to do their jobs, and develop their skills can benefit from higher productivity and experience a competitive advantage over their peers.

Employee-owned firms, where workers are also the owners, often have a culture that promotes worker voice and shared agency. Frank Lindsey, an employee-owner and store manager at A Few Cool Hardware Stores, says, “We’re all owners together, so we’re all going to listen to each other in a way to try to make our company be better together.” It’s this culture that is often credited for creating the benefits that workers and the business receive under employee ownership.

Evident among employee-owned companies and other firms that exhibit high trust in employees is a respect for worker expertise. Workers are often closest to the problems that need to be addressed and the opportunities to improve performance. Becky Lee, a director at IDEO, uses human-centered design to implement new technologies and workforce strategies. “We always think about design starting with people and human needs and listening to those most proximate to a given challenge,” she says. “For companies, that often means your employees, and especially frontline workers.”

Putting trust in workers is simple. It means ensuring workers feel confident providing input and taking their advice into consideration. “Listening is a first step on the journey,” Lee says.

Trusting workers is foundational to fixing jobs and building a strong economy.

In 1972, Nobel Prize Prize-winning economist Kenneth Arrow wrote, “Virtually every commercial transaction has within itself an element of trust, certainly any transaction conducted over a period of time. It can be plausibly argued that much of the economic backwardness in the world can be explained by the lack of mutual confidence.”

Trust in the workplace has implications far beyond the individual person or firm. Research shows that higher trusting societies experience more economic growth and prosperity than those that are lower trusting. The high proportion of low-quality jobs in the US, however, is certainly indicative of a slip toward this “economic backwardness.”

The consequences of these low-quality jobs are ubiquitous. They depress consumer demand and economic growth, contribute to poor health outcomes, drive income and wealth gaps, and facilitate societal divisions. Ensuring that all work allows for a dignified life is paramount to our country’s success. And who is better able to fix this than workers themselves? Now is the time for employers and businesses to put faith in workers. The future of work and our nation depends on it.

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