Hal Holbrook died last week. For over 60 years, he starred in the best one-man theater performances I ever witnessed – Mark Twain Tonight. Indeed, according to his New York Times (NYT) obituary, Holbrook played Twain for six decades, noting “standing alone onstage in a rumpled white linen suit, spinning an omnisciently pungent, incisive and humane narration of the human comedy.” Holbrooke took “Mark Twain Tonight!” to New York at the Off Broadway 41st Street Theater, in 1956. “By then the metamorphosis was complete. With his shambling gait, Missouri drawl, sly glances and exquisite timing, Hal Holbrook had, for all intents and purposes, become Mark Twain.” Holbrook had many other great roles, notably Deep Throat in All The President’s Men, but for me he was always Mark Twain.

Holbrook and his alter ego introduce today’s topic of employee trust, which is becoming increasingly in shorter and shorter supply in the corporate world. I do not mean employees trust in management; I refer to employees trust in each other. This topic was addressed head on in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) article WFH Is Corroding Our Trust in Each Other by Mark Mortensen and Heidi K. Gardner. The authors believe there is a crisis of trust as “the strains of remote working wear down company culture and people’s goodwill. In the companies and industries the authors researched, they have observed “a shift from the positive, “We’ve figured out this virtual work thing!”” The critical element is “the recognition that trust in their organizations — in individuals, relationships, and the organization — is fundamentally at risk.” All of this means that it is even more critical that organizations, “work to rebuild and maintain trusting relationships — with and among their employees. Those that don’t risk far more than lower morale. The chances of increased attrition, lower productivity, and stalled innovation also loom large when trust plummets.”

Why has this crisis in trust become more prevalent now? Obviously, the Coronavirus pandemic has made remote work widespread. Second, when employees were forced into work from home (WFH) they did so often without the equipment, training or even the desire to do it. Finally, the strain and accompanying “uncertainty about the economy and job stability breeds anxiety, which tends to prompt a go-it-alone mode of working among employees and a general wariness of others.” Finally, the authors believe that “employees’ WFH challenges make it more likely that they will not deliver on perceived obligations, leading to a further erosion of trust.” Chief Compliance Officers (CCOs) and compliance professionals charged with overseeing culture must address these “underlying issues in order to build a sustainable model of trust.”

What can a CCO or compliance professional do about this situation? The authors make clear that monitoring is not the answer. They state, “First, it never works” and equally importantly it “is “usually counterproductive.” [emphasis in original] The reasons are multi-fold as “there will always be gaps in any monitoring process.” Moreover, employees perform to the measure, not to the objective, which of course destroys the hope of getting any real work done. Finally, “monitoring isn’t just ineffective — it actually makes the problem worse…Monitoring can also increase burnout and employee dissatisfaction and undermine firm morale.” The bottom line is that “There are few stronger signals that you don’t trust someone than putting them under surveillance.”

To help remedy this situation, the authors point towards relying on the science of trust to build it in the least risky way possible. This will “reduce the likelihood that someone will take advantage of it (and you).” When focusing on trust, many CCOs and compliance professional focus on employees only. This approach fails to take into account that trust is bi-directional and reciprocal; in other words,  “the more you trust someone and act accordingly, the more likely they are to trust you in return. Importantly, these do not operate independently.”

As CCO you need to signal your own trustworthiness. This will work to build others trust in you will also provides reciprocal trust. The more trust employees place in you, the less likely they will be to betray your trust. The authors believe, “This is not setting yourself up to be taken advantage of; this is a strategic move that de-risks trust-building.” The best way to build this trust out is with small, consistent steps, which present your evidence that you are trustworthy and reinforce that concept. “Demonstrate your own trustworthiness within that context and then, over time, build up to larger and more significant demonstrations to reinforce the trust you’re establishing.”

For every CCO or compliance professional, a key to success is communication when things change. In the age of the Coronavirus pandemic, you must recognize the critical importance of helping employees understand what they can count on. This type of communication also has the benefit of reducing employees’ stress and uncertainty. Just as the Department of Justice (DOJ) mandates that senior management must lead by doing compliance; in the area of trust, “A critical first step is to not assume that others build trust as you do… If you’re building the evidence for your trust case and your counterpart is trusting you on arrival, it’s critical that you keep an eye out for your own behaviors that may signal an infraction for them.”

The authors conclude, “Widespread remote work is likely to stick around for a while yet. Company leaders who want to maintain morale and avoid negative outcomes like increased attrition must take steps to establish (or reestablish) trust among their employees.” This means every CCO and compliance professional must work to maintain trust and your culture in the workforce; not simply the workplace.

This publication contains general information only and is based on the experiences and research of the author. The author is not, by means of this publication, rendering business, legal advice, or other professional advice or services. This publication is not a substitute for such legal advice or services, nor should it be used as a basis for any decision or action that may affect your business. Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your business, you should consult a qualified legal advisor. The author, his affiliates, and related entities shall not be responsible for any loss sustained by any person or entity that relies on this publication. The Author gives his permission to link, post, distribute, or reference this article for any lawful purpose, provided attribution is made to the author. The author can be reached at tfox@tfoxlaw.com.

© Thomas R. Fox, 2021