Making TRUST the Foundation of Your HR Leadership Strategy

HR leader building trust through honest conversation with employee

The word trust packs a powerful punch! Just take a second and ask yourself – when you think about trust, what comes to mind? I'd bet many people immediately think of a relationship that had a significant impact on their life, and that relationship was either deemed good or bad based on the level of trust.

The point is we all know that when trust is fostered it bonds and strengthens the relationship, as a result the relationship grows and flourishes. However, when trust is broken the opposite happens and the relationship may deteriorate, end, or take years to re-build. Relationships are important to all of us and they impact our lives on so many levels, so it's natural to bring the expectations we have around trust in our personal lives into professional settings.

Let's explore how HR leaders can build on the foundation of trust to become more effective and take the right strategic steps for their organizations and people.


The impact of trust in the workplace

The most important thing to remember about trust in the workplace is that just like in life, it's a two-way street. There are expectations that employers have for their employees and expectations employees have for their employers. Some of these expectations are clearly defined, like job descriptions or performance goals, but there are other expectations that might not be so clear, even though both employer and employee recognize they exist. But when those expectations – formal or informal – aren't met on either side, it can erode trust.  

When trust is eroded, it can have negative impacts and can be devastating to your people and your organization. Trust, either good or bad, impacts everything in your business, from productivity, retention, workplace culture, your bottom line, and your customers.  

Establishing trust at work isn't always easy, and people have different opinions on whether trust should be earned or given. In fact, a recent study conducted by the Workforce Institute showed that the majority of Business Leaders, 63 percent worldwide, said that trust must be earned. With that being said, it's no surprise that only 29 percent of employees feel they're trusted on day one of employment. Regardless of the earned vs. given opinion, trust needs to be mutual. The employee-employer relationship will either be broken or strengthened based on the level of trust established.

So what can you do as an HR leader at your organization to ensure you're building a culture where trust is the foundation? Well, as a leader you have a real opportunity to drive the tone for the rest of your organization. And the messages you send to your people are critical for building that culture of trust.

Luckily, TRUST can be more than just a concept – it can also be an acronym you use as a framework for taking the right strategic HR steps with your people. Here's a breakdown of the areas you should focus on.


Building trust starts when you're transparent with your employees, so that's the first focus area in the TRUST framework. Truthful and honest communication is a key building block in your cultural foundation that helps foster an environment of transparency and build loyalty among your people. As HR leaders, we need to help our organizations turn the corner on transparent communication to ensure that everyone regardless of their role receives the same message.

When information is only shared with a select group of people, it can be perceived as favoritism or bias. Communication that's open and honest about organizational goals and difficulties is paramount for building a culture of trust. Employees also need to trust that their leaders are listening to their concerns, ideas, and opinions and are taking them into consideration when making decisions.  

When employees have a clear understanding of the mission and vision of the company and they can trust that their leaders have their best interests in mind, they will stay engaged and productive. Building this kind of clarity successfully requires delivering your messages consistently in the formats your employees actually use, such as through mobile-friendly notifications or spot surveys that show your people you genuinely care about their ability to access the information you provide and their perspective on where the organization is headed.


Relationship building is the second part of the TRUST framework, and is an essential part of really knowing your employees. Making a connection with your employees to learn what is important to them can help leaders identify where they may be having roadblocks. When leaders know what their employees are thinking and feeling, they can put actions into place to further support and develop them.  

Good working relationships are the cornerstone of a productive team and should be nourished. One way to go about nourishing these relationships is to provide standards of effective leadership. In fact, according to the Workforce Institute research referenced earlier 52 percent of employees said if their managers were more dependable, they could earn their trust.  

The thing is, dependability starts at the top.  As HR leaders, we're in a position where our employees look to us and follow our lead. If we're unresponsive, unable make decisions, or don't act on important items, we'll be seen as unreliable or not dependable. And remember, managers take their cue from their leaders, so we need to embody best practices when it comes to relationship building. We have many opportunities to set the tone here, including by aligning our HR technology around what's meaningful for our employees and managers and maximizing every possible connection point in our day to day.


HR leaders make decisions every day to hire the best candidates for different jobs. We spend hours interviewing them, checking their background, and learning who they are as individuals. Maybe they possess a skillset or a talent that's required, or maybe they're a perfect fit for the culture. Whatever the reason, we make the decision to hire these individuals. But we also have to make sure this understanding doesn't fall away after they're a part of our team, which is what this part of the TRUST framework is about. 

You see, the original reasons leaders choose people for different roles often get overlooked when performance drops, productivity suffers, or the employee displays an attitude that's out of character. As leaders, we need to proactively identify what's happening with our employees so that we can offer the best solution. But how can we objectively look at this kind of situation? How can we take the emotion out of our reactions and determine what's really going on with our employees? How can we ensure that we have our employees’ best interests in mind?

Investing in technology that keeps a pulse on what is happening with your people is a great place to start. Chances are good if you have a modern HR system it's collecting the data you need to identify where your people are having issues. People analytics allows leaders to quickly identify trends and pinpoint things that are happening, like performance concerns, burnout, fatigue, and more. And nowadays the best solutions will even have AI capabilities that are similar to having a consultant or advisor looking at your data 24/7 and recommending the best courses of action so you can maximize your impact without losing time digging through mountains of information. 

Having tools that provide insight into what's driving behavior or performance gives you fact-based data that can help drive conversations and decisions with your workforce. Predictive analytics and AI can help leaders guide their employees more efficiently and take actionable steps to prevent issues from arising. When leaders are equipped with people analytics and use that data to proactively invest in the betterment of their people, they foster a culture that's built on trust.


Emotional and physical security is top of mind for employers and employees everywhere, and is a key component in building a foundation of trust. The amount of stress our employees are dealing with today is higher than ever before. With nearly 2 in 5 employees (38 percent) not trusting that their organization is putting their interests ahead of profits, it's essential that HR leaders are taking every measure to keep their people safe both physically and mentally.

If the employer-employee relationship has been impacted by mistrust, it is important to identify where those gaps exist so we can take proactive measures to rebuild trust. When employees don't feel a sense of belonging, the career choices open to them, and their mental health, they become disengaged and unproductive or leave the organization because they don't feel secure. Leaders play a critical role in nurturing employee well-being and creating a safe workplace environment . When employees can trust their leaders are taking every measure to ensure their safety, they will be at their best.


This may sound redundant as the last point in a TRUST framework, but the reality is the idea of trust itself is where this whole thing starts and ends. Leaders of all kinds need to give trust freely to their people and empower them to do the work they were hired to do. This goes a long way with employees, and HR can play a key role in helping others in leadership positions give their trust to employees and believe they will take the right actions for your organization.

When an employee feels like they're being micromanaged or their work isn't being recognized, they may get frustrated or stop putting their all into their work. In fact, 68 percent of employees said that low trust hurts their daily effort. Employees today want to be respected and supported and they want their leaders to recognize them for the work they're doing.

I love how UKG CEO Aron Ain explains trusting employees in chapter four of his book WorkInspired. Trusting our employees to do the right thing is not always easy, but the consequences of not trusting them are worse. 

It's also important to remember that this trust is more than just giving your people the freedom to do their jobs the way they think is best. It's about actively offering them choices that enhance their experience. Your people's priorities are always shifting, and you need to lock on to the rewards they care about most so you can reinforce positive behaviors, show your trust with meaningful perks and benefits, and have flexible options for recognizing a job well done.

Conclusion: HR leadership can take steps now to build foundations of trust

As HR leaders, you play an important role in how your people view your organization. When you understand what your employees need and want, you can lead the organization effectively and cultivate a culture that is built on the foundation of TRUST. A strong HR technology solution can help you keep a pulse on your organization and people and empower you to create a culture that says you care. If you need more tips on what questions you should ask to get to a system that supports and reinforces trust, check out our buyer's guide.

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