Companies often blame trust violations on ‘rogue employees,’ but these violations are predictable in organizations that allow dysfunctional, conflicting or incongruent activities to take root.
In the aftermath of the well-publicized corporate scandals of Enron, WorldCom and Tyco circa 2001 and 2002, there were major efforts in the United States to restore trust and enforce corporate compliance. Among other things, the U.S. Congress passed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, featuring enhanced whistleblower protections, holding CEOs and CFOs personally responsible for financial statements, and establishing the creation of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, harsher sentencing rules and even new organizational guidelines to encourage boards to adopt changes to organization structures and processes to target more systemic approaches to prevent wrongdoing. Corporate spending on compliance increased an estimated $6 billion annually,1 and leading business schools created ethics centers and made ethics training mandatory.
Yet despite these reform efforts, corporate trust violations have gone unabated and public trust in business has plummeted.2 A full recitation of the significant trust violations of recent years would go on for pages, covering Olympus Corporation’s accounting fraud, Barclays’ LIBOR rigging scandal, News Corporation’s phone-hacking scandal, and the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. In fact, some of the most insidious practices from the Enron era (notably, disguising financial weakness with off-balance-sheet debt) were front and center again during the global financial crisis of 2008. In the wake of that financial crisis, the U.S. Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which extended and tightened the financial regulatory system and strengthened consumer protections. But the apparent inability of governments and industry groups to curb the level of wrongdoing raises important questions: Why do trust failures continue to occur with such frequency, and how can they be reliably prevented?
The matter is all the more perplexing considering that there is substantial research on organizational trust, including what trust is, how trust affects the functioning of organizations and how trust can be built, lost and repaired.3 Much of the work supports commonsense notions about how leaders can and should earn the trust of followers. One of us (Robert Hurley) developed the framework below to help leaders understand how to earn trust.