In the American TV show The Office, manager Michael Scott loathes Toby Flenderson, the mild-mannered HR representative, because he perceives Toby as stopping him from doing the things he wants to do.
In real-life work environments, it’s not usually managers who believe HR is against them; it’s line workers. A 2016 Edelman study found that almost one in three employees didn’t trust their employers. It can be hard for HR departments to hear that their employees don’t trust them. As you evaluate whether there’s a trust problem at your organization, keep in mind the broader context in which companies currently exist and how your HR team can overcome negative perceptions.
Do your employees trust your HR team? Here are signs they may not — and ways your HR team can regain your employees’ trust.
4 Signs Your Employees Don’t Trust Your HR Department
Signs of mistrust can be subtle. They can fly under the radar until an inciting incident brings them to the fore. But by that time it may be too late to win employees back over.
Look for the following signs of mistrust in your workplace. If you recognize one or more of these signs at your company, it’s time to take action.
1. They don’t come to the HR department to resolve issues.
All organizations, even healthy ones, occasionally need help with conflict resolution. Personalities clash. Misunderstandings arise on work sites, on the production floor, or during company meetings. If no one ever approaches your HR team to resolve conflict, it doesn’t mean there isn’t conflict at your organization. It just means no one trusts HR to successfully resolve it. In some cases, employees may even believe that they will be punished for raising issues to HR.
2. They resist HR decisions.
If changes to benefit packages and company policies — whether related to sexual harassment or the dress code — are met with suspicion or even resistance from your staff, it may be a sign that employees distrust the motives of the HR team. When employees don’t feel that HR is on their side, even something that appears to be a positive change, such as an increased focus on learning and development programs, may be met with skepticism. If your employees complain about decisions HR makes related to disciplinary measures, promotions, and performance reviews that’s an even stronger sign that they don’t have faith in HR to support them.
3. Employees who used to ask for promotions or raises have stopped.
Indifference is a sign that people have stopped trusting your HR team. If employees seem apathetic about receiving promotions or raises, it’s likely not because they don’t care about career advancement. The majority of Millennials report they want training to develop their skills, and are likely to leave a company if they don’t feel they’re getting that career development.
So if employees stop pursuing career advancement, they may believe their managers and HR won’t reward their work performance, and therefore there’s no point in trying. Pay special attention if employees who were declined or put off for a promotion have gradually stopped asking — silence is a sign an employee has lost faith in HR and may be preparing to leave the company to seek recognition for their skills elsewhere.
4. Employees leave your company suddenly.
If the first sign that an employee is considering leaving is their resignation letter, this should raise a red flag for HR. It may mean that whatever reason your employee had for looking elsewhere — whether better compensation, professional development and training opportunities, or a different boss — they didn’t trust anyone at your organization to take their concerns seriously and address them.
With the rise of the skills gap in manufacturing, construction and engineering, your organization can’t afford to lose talented employees. If you notice a pattern wherein HR rarely has prior warning of employees feeling unsatisfied at your company, it indicates a strong lack of trust in HR and it must be addressed.
3 Ways to Rebuild Trust
If you do see signs of mistrust at your company, here are steps you can take to help turn the ship around.
1. Create a personal connection.
At times, HR can seem to operate in their own bubble, appearing for interviews and performance reviews, reappearing to outline a list of behaviors that aren’t allowed on the job, and then disappearing back to their office. This can make HR professionals seem remote and impersonal, especially for employees who work on site or in the field and view HR as existing only in the office. It’s hard for an employee to disclose an uncomfortable workplace interaction or raise a concern to a stranger, who may or may not take them seriously.
To build trust, employees need to feel a personal connection to HR employees. Encourage your HR team to get to know other employees on a personal level, by visiting work sites, making appearances in the field, or getting out on the manufacturing floor. Focus on team building opportunities for employees of different departments or teams to mingle together. Facilitate brown bag lunches, after-work drinks, or social sports teams.
2. Apologize for your failures.
If employees have lost trust in your HR team because HR misstepped in a significant way, your team needs to acknowledge that it messed up and apologize. This is really hard to do, but it’s crucial to reestablishing a culture of trust.
No one’s perfect. By admitting their mistakes, your HR professionals can make themselves seem more human and less distant (which helps with that personal connection). This will also build a culture of transparency and honesty at your organization, where other employees feel they can own up to their mistakes.
3. Bring in an outsider for serious issues.
If your company is facing a sticky situation — such as allegations against an executive — your HR team may not be able to credibly investigate the allegations or make a judgment on an appropriate outcome. Employees may reasonably believe there’s no way an HR department can investigate an executive in an unbiased way. Don’t put your HR team in the difficult position of investigating someone in management while trying to reassure employees of their impartiality. Get outside help.
As you begin rebuilding trust in your HR team, remember there are no quick fixes. Regaining trust takes time and consistency. Slowly, as your HR team reaches out to other employees, admits its mistakes, and demonstrates its reliability, your other employees will come to trust again.