How to build trust: Insights from the PwC Trust in U.S. Business Survey

Building trust in the workplace can be a long, complex process. In today’s corporate sphere, employees and customers have been voicing clear priorities about what forms the basis of trust—priorities that companies still often miss. In August 2021, professional services firm PwC set out to understand what exactly “trust” means to business leaders, employees, and customers. While surveying 1000 consumers and more than 500 business leaders in the U.S., PwC wanted to know what drives trust for these groups, what common challenges and solutions arose around building trust in the workplace, and how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the trust landscape.  

The results of their Trust in U.S. Business Survey found that employees, business leaders, and consumers often agree on key areas, including foundational elements of trust. However, disconnects still exist. A consumer's perspective on trust can be quite different from that of business executives—and may be entirely different from what the company is doing. Building trust is a continuous process. Now more than ever, efforts to build trust are paying off as both customers and employees report higher trust levels in U.S. businesses than before the pandemic began. Still, many companies aren’t yet implementing commonly accepted leading practices on trust—but there is a path forward. 

What defines trust in the workplace?  

In the world of business, knowing how to build trust in the workplace requires understanding what “trust” even means to your audiences.Trust takes different forms, but the survey found that U.S. consumers, employees, and business leaders agree on the foundational elements of trust. When asked what comes to mind when they think of trust, all three groups agreed on the top four items: 

  • Data protection and cybersecurity—rated by both consumers and employees at 62%, while businesses rated it at 70%. 
  • Treating employees well—rated at 56% by consumers, 53% by employees, and 55% by businesses. 
  • Ethical business practices—rated by consumers at 53%, while both employees and businesses rated them at 52%. 
  • Admitting to mistakes—rated at 46% by both employees and businesses, while consumers rated it at 49%. 

However, divergences start to grow as consumers, employees, and business consider other defining elements of trust: 

  • Business leaders tend to include elements that relate to broader social impact—sustainable value chain management (43%), responsible artificial intelligence (43%), and ESG reporting (41%)—in their definition of trust. 
  • Employees, however, are more likely than the other groups to emphasize holding leadership accountable (34% versus 27% of consumers and 26% of businesses).  

PwC argues that these disconnects can also be opportunities to build a more ethical culture. “Businesses can better communicate how their disparate priorities collectively tie into trust,” the report notes. “They can also lead with true accountability. That includes both transparency for mistakes and sustained, equally transparent efforts to make things right.” 

Are businesses meeting consumer and employee expectations of trust?  

Despite the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. businesses witnessed a rise in trust as many of them pulled through for consumers and employees during a time of crisis. Both consumers and employees both say they trust business more now than before the pandemic.  

  • Today, over half of consumers have at least “a fair amount of trust” in companies in every industry. Consumer markets (68%) and healthcare (65%) lead the pack, while private equity (56%) and government (54%) rank lowest. 
  • Four out of five (80%) employees report trusting their company the same or more now than before the pandemic. A slightly higher number (84%) report trusting their direct manager the same or more now. 

However, a rise in trust does not necessarily mean that companies are fully delivering on what employees and consumers define as trust-building. Case in point: PwC’s recent Next in work survey found that 88% of business executives report higher turnover than normal. This could mean that many companies may not be taking the right actions to turn employee trust into employee loyalty. 

The Trust in U.S. Business Survey also finds that trust in theory and trust in practice aren’t the same. Business leader actions on trust often don’t match what they deem “extremely important”—and these actions often don’t address consumer priorities. Consumers state their top trust driver is accountability, but only 56% of business leaders deem it “extremely important.” And only 46% say that their companies have implemented it. 

A noteworthy example of this disconnect lies within the realm of ESG. While 45% of business leaders have implemented transparent ESG reporting, only 19% of consumers list it among their top drivers of trust. According to PwC, the reason for this could be a few things: 

  • While consumers do care about ESG initiatives like climate change, they may not fully understand what ESG reporting entails.  
  • It's possible that consumers consider ESG reporting as part of their top two trust drivers: accountability and clear communications. 
  • ESG skepticism may also be a problem. Only 24% of consumers say the main reason for ESG pledges is to do good. Far more (39%) say that the motive for companies is self-interest: to build trust with them, the consumers. 

The research makes it clear that when issues of trust not addressed, the consequences are significant. 44% of U.S. customers stop buying from a company due to lack of accountability and trust in a business. And roughly one out of five employees leave a company due to trust issues—not even for pursuing a better salary. 

What can businesses start doing now to start building trust in the workplace?  

Trust is a superpower for a business that wants loyal customers. According to the survey, when there was trust in a business 49% of consumers increased their purchases—and 33% even paid a premium for trust. 73% of business leaders concur that trust helps a lot when building customer loyalty. Between 48% and 58% of business leaders say that trust also helps in critical areas such as reputation, revenue growth, and brand. 

While there are disconnects to overcome, businesses can build more ethical cultures and meet consumer and employee expectations on trust. When companies show consumers accountability, admit to mistakes, and communicate clearly, they are on the right path. All of this starts with thinking differently about these four areas of business: 

  • Be deliberate about your trust strategy. Start by evaluating where you are and how your senior leaders should work together to build trust in your organization. This will help you focus your efforts on initiatives that will really move the needle. 
  • Consider all stakeholders. Develop a plan from the start that addresses the needs of employees, consumers and other stakeholders—even if those needs conflict. When done right, this approach can be a positive force multiplier across all groups. 
  • Deliver on actions. Examine your commitments and goals on everything from taxes to financial reporting to the communities you serve, and make sure that you can actually deliver on those items consistently. Reliability is key to building a more ethical culture. 
  • Rethink technology. Providing top-notch cybersecurity and data privacy, mitigating bias in AI, addressing common risks of cloud initiatives—these are just some of the many ways to evaluate how you use technology and whether that approach aligns with your values. 

We can help your organization with building trust in the workplace 

Values are powerful as they guide behavior, strengthen the business, and shape company culture. At LRN, we are dedicated to helping you discover valuable strategies with our community of business leaders and workplace changemakers. For more insights around building trust and a more ethical business culture, check out these additional resources: