Lucy Adams
September 22, 2021
Reading time: 9 minutes
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When you look at the research into who we trust, there are some challenging implications for HR.  So much of our current approach stems is based around our leaders being the font of all truth, wisdom and credibility.

  • Our internal communications prioritise the CEO all-staff email or the leader-led cascade of information
  • Our engagement or development sessions are scheduled around when the C-suite can make an appearance
  • Our on-boarding sessions include a “message from the top” and often we drag out busy execs to lead training sessions.

And yet, the Edelman Trust Barometer tells us that we trust our leaders much less than we trust ‘people like us’.

Marketing cottoned onto this a while back. They’re obsessed with Facebook “likes” or positive customer reviews. They know that we will trust a TripAdvisor review over the hotel PR blurb any day and so they have exploited the rise of social media to ensure that their customers hear great things – from people like them. We in HR have been a little slower to embrace this societal change and to use it to our advantage. If we assume that the Edelman Trust Barometer results are relevant for our employment relationships, then this should challenge us to rethink our approach in a number of areas. If we have “trust in people like us” at the forefront of our minds then maybe our reliance on our leaders for communication, engagement and training would lessen and we would start seeing the value of using our frontline employees far more?

Instead of grimacing when we sporadically click on Glassdoor to check out what our latest disgruntled ex-employee has been saying about us, we might follow the L’Oreal example. They had a big campaign where they encouraged their current employees to write reviews on Glassdoor. This didn’t just result in a 200% increase in the numbers they had on there, but also a much more accurate summary of what it was like to work there.

Whether online or via the old-school paper newsletter, internal comms teams still rely heavily on leader-led communication to broadcast corporate information. When I joined the BBC, I was initially horrified to learn that our version of the newsletter was an editorially independent magazine called “Ariel”. Paid for by management – but free to say whatever they liked as long as it adhered to the BBC’s editorial guidelines. It used to drive me mad that a big chunk of my budget was being spent on a newsletter that would regularly be critical of my latest HR policy announcement. But I eventually realised that it was the one piece of communication that was really trusted. When you have 6000+ journalists working with you, many of whom had the regular emails from Internal Comms on auto-delete, to have a trusted form of communication was vital, even if occasionally uncomfortable.

We have known for a while that referrals from current employees often make the best hires and employee referral schemes have been around forever. But it works the other way too. Who are you more likely to believe about what it’s like to work somewhere? A recruitment advert or a current employee? Equipping your great people with a strong brand message and trusting them to actively promote you either in person or via social media will build far greater belief in your employment brand than a nice careers website.

Some organisations ask employees to help each other onboard. Southwest Airlines, for instance, invites people from all levels of the company, to talk about their jobs to recruits. Whole Foods, the US grocery retailer, actually gets its employees (not the HR manager or the store manager) to decide whether a new starter should stay or not. After 90 days the team is invited to vote on whether to keep the employee; this sounds quite brutal but actually makes a lot of sense given they’re the ones most likely to know if the person is right for the company. Commerce Sciences, a Silicon Valley tech start-up, has a tradition in which the last person to join the team is responsible for creating a starter kit for the next person.

Instead of the parental, leader-led approach to performance reviews, more and more companies are seeing the value of peer to peer review. Whilst getting feedback from your manager is clearly important, understanding how your team members view your contribution can often be even more impactful. The proliferation of employee feedback apps such as Culture Amp and Achievers show that this method is gaining in popularity. But there is also the underused team performance discussion where employees are encouraged to provide feedback to their peers.

Our reliance on the leader as the source of truth is diminishing and smarter HR teams are seeing how their frontline employees can become so much more than simply passive recipients. Engaging your employees as the designers of learning content, as the advocates for your employment brand and the genuine voice of the organisation takes more than just time and creative thinking – it takes guts. Leaders and HR find it hard to relinquish control of the message and methods of delivery. But if we don’t, we risk missing out on a huge, untapped resource that can be so much more effective.

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