The Erosion – Trust in the Workplace

Posted by Carolyn Thompson on Feb 13, 2015 in Lessons Learned |

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The jungle is a dynamic place: the river rises after a hard rain, a flower blooms in its season, and the boa slithers from tree to tree as he changes habitats. Sometimes—maybe very quickly but often gradually– the lush jungle landscape wears down. Wind and water move soil and rock causing land degradation. This process is called erosion. Although erosion is natural, human activity has caused or intensified erosion in many areas so that now excessive erosion is a serious environmental problem.

Like the jungle, businesses and our relationships within those businesses are in constant flux. The business can be growing and positively affecting our communities, but other factors can quickly or gradually wear a business down. As in the jungle, erosion in business is increased as a result of human activities. Trust is the soil of the workplace environment. Trust holds the whole business landscape together. As employees, we have a trust based relationship with our supervisors. When that trust is broken, the relationship begins to erode.

Consider this scenario:

A seasoned business development executive who had worked for the same company for more than four years and had consistently been compensated in accordance with the written pay plan was suddenly not being paid.  The first time she wasn’t paid because she didn’t turn in her quarterly sales reports on time.  When she turned in her reports and asked to be paid retroactively, no response was given by the supervisor other than, “I will submit them, thanks.”

Subsequent quarterly reports were submitted on time over the course of the next six months.   None of them were paid, either.  Finally the employee approached the supervisor and said, “Listen, I really need these to be paid.  This is half my income that I count on, and I have a kid going into college.”  The supervisor looked at her and said, “I understand.”

This went on for an entire year.  The employee asked payroll about it. Payroll told her that they didn’t have the approval to pay the commissions but that they would look into it.  Payroll escalated the matter to another executive who in turn told the employee’s supervisor to “take care of it.”   Despite all of the people involved, the supervisor never approved the payments.

What should have happened in this case?  The employee should have been more direct in her questioning about why she had not been paid.  Choosing your words wisely goes a long way.  She should have asked, “Why haven’t I been paid?”  Asking open ended questions would have positioned her to receive a direct answer from the supervisor.

Issues of pay, or in this case, lack thereof, may be in violation of state and federal laws regarding compensation. It is best to hire an attorney to advise you regarding your specific situation and circumstances.

As far as trust goes, this type of behavior cannot be rectified and in cases like this, trust is forever eroded.  The supervisor’s misuse of power eroded the employee’s trust, and the employee could never again respect the supervisor’s authority in the same way. In general, failure to follow through on spoken or written commitments is the fastest way to erode trust.

Just like land degradation intensified by human activity is the pervasive environmental problem of our time, the erosion of trust in the workplace is a great threat to workplace happiness and any company’s bottom line. Mistrust of a supervisor is one of the number one reasons people leave their positions. They don’t leave jobs or companies: they leave bosses.

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