Moral character: the path to trustful workplaces

By Louisa Baczor, CIPD Research Associate

In many ways, 2016 was a year filled with events that were detrimental to public trust. We experienced UK and US political campaigns based on falsehood and misinformation; cover-ups of historic sexual abuse in top football clubs were revealed; and numerous companies were exposed for ‘cheating the system’, such as through tax avoidance and paying staff below the minimum wage. In such times of uncertainty, trust becomes even more important to enable us to move forward.

Trust has been defined as ‘an individual’s expectation that some organised system will act with predictability and goodwill’ (Maguire and Phillips 2008). The current travel chaos in London is a clear example of that element of predictability being severely damaged (or virtually non-existent). And the recent finding by Siemens and IPPR that sixty per cent of people believe businesses are too focused on generating profits, and not enough on investing in their communities, raises the question: how can people trust businesses if they are not seen to be demonstrating goodwill?

HR’s role in creating cultures of trust
Our previous research on the crisis of trust in organisations during the aftermath of the financial crisis highlighted a key role for HR to play as a ‘trust custodian’ – a champion of ethics in the organisation – which includes the ability to engage in difficult conversations and take on an active stewardship role by challenging senior leaders on ethical issues. As the experts on people and organisational behaviour, HR has the potential to influence cultures of trust. For example, HR practices can act as a signal to employees that the organisation has a genuine interest in their well-being.

Undoubtedly, there are tensions in HR’s role in balancing the needs and interests of the organisation with those of its workforce. Often, when faced with difficult people management decisions, there is no obvious right answer that has positive outcomes for everyone. Our 2015 report showed that despite wanting to make more balanced people management decisions, HR practitioners often face obstacles such as pressure from business leaders, and a lack of accountability for the outcomes of such decisions.

Trust and professionalism go hand in hand
Because professionals have unique expertise, they have a responsibility not to use that expertise to gain unfair advantage. For example, when you visit the doctor, you must be able to trust them to make the best possible decision about your treatment, since they have a superior level of knowledge about medicine. The CIPD’s earlier research on trust suggested that to rebuild or maintain trust, business leaders should display personal integrity and humanity; demonstrating that they are serving the needs of the whole organisation, not merely acting in their own interest.

Creating trustful work environments is about developing moral character
To be viewed as trusted professionals, HR must demonstrate expert knowledge, but must also apply that knowledge to make good decisions based on strong ethical standards; in the other words, we must have moral character. It’s not often that being predictable is considered a positive attribute, but in order for HR to build trust in organisations, and for organisations to build trust with wider society, we must hold ourselves to those high ethical standards consistently. To paraphrase Charlotte Bronte, principles aren’t just for the good times. If we break with them at our convenience, what are they worth?

How are you creating cultures of trust?
We’d love to hear more about how you’re developing trustful cultures in your own organisations. What kind of initiatives are you running? How do you challenge unethical behaviour? Have you seen any shifts in light of recent ethical scandals?

How is the CIPD supporting HR and L&D to build trust in the profession?
Join us on Wednesday 29 March, as we develop a Professional Standards Framework, which will clearly define professional standards for CIPD members and the wider people profession. Attendees will have the chance to help shape the future of the profession, as we develop and refine the framework through a series of interactive workshops, discussions and debates.

We’ll also be releasing a new report later on this month, looking at moral character and how professionals see themselves at work. We’ll be announcing its release on social media, so keep your eyes peeled!

We’ve also got a series of existing reports on building trust in the Workplace:

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