Ethics on the Inside: 4 Tips to Help Your Company Build Employee Trust

September 1, 2015

Employee communication is one of the fastest-growing specializations in public relations. Employees are critical stakeholders. They are more than the people exchanging their time and talents for a paycheck — they are brand ambassadors within the organization as well as to other key audiences, including consumers.

For many companies, employees are like family members. We listen carefully to their needs and concerns and respond with empathy, assistance and advice, especially in times of organizational change. Employees experience an organization’s real culture through our words and actions. They know when communication is not authentic and aren’t afraid to call us out on it.

So how can you build employee trust with ethics? We asked several internal communications professionals from PRSA’s Employee Communications Section to share their advice.

1. Be honest.

“There’s a huge temptation for internal communications people to ‘spin,’” says Sean Williams, owner, Communication AMMO, Inc., and adjunct professor of public relations at Kent State University.

“Let’s face it: There are leaders and managers who don’t want to tell hard truths; they want to paint a pretty picture. This can have a fatal impact on trust — and trust, as all of us should know, is essential in business and has been in decline. We have to foster honesty to improve trust internally and externally.”

2. Lead by example.

“We should act as the moral compass and ask whether we are protecting the employees’ best interests,” says Kristen Turley, APR, communications specialist, Magellan Midstream Partners, L.P. “Are we ensuring that the company’s reputation remains intact?” 

3. Remain transparent.

“It’s the most important element of ethical delivery of internal and employee communications. Sometimes we can’t answer every question, but we can provide meaningful avenues for questions to be raised, truthful responses when they are available, explanations when they are not and proactive follow-up when appropriate,” says Elisabeth Wang, executive director for communications and public relations, Piedmont Healthcare.

“Employees understand that every question can’t be answered. However, they want to work in an environment that informs and includes their feedback as quickly as possible. If they see leaders making a real effort to be transparent, then they are more willing to trust us when times are uncertain.”

4. Take the longer view.

“When faced with an ethical dilemma, develop an objective perspective and consider what’s best for the long-term relationships between everyone affected. That means putting our personal interests aside and acting for the common good,” says Jim Streed, APR, manager of internal communications, Wisconsin Public Service Corp.

“Sometimes things don’t fall in the company’s favor, and we have to diplomatically advise decision-makers on a more productive path. It can be a hard call, but it’s the right thing to do. Confiding in a trusted colleague with an agnostic perspective can help you find the right direction.”

And always remember to stay vigilant. The constant evolution of PR tools and strategies affects internal communications. Watch these trends and explore their best ethical implications and potential pitfalls. Actively pursue professional development opportunities that will keep your skills sharp and your practices beyond reproach.

Marlene Neill, Ph.D., APR, is an assistant professor in advertising and public relations at Baylor. Her research focuses on PR management, organizational power and ethics. She is a member of BEPS. Email: Marlene_Neill@baylor.edu; Twitter: neillpr.

Nancy Syzdek, M.A., APR, heads corporate communications for JT3 LLC. She is the chair of PRSA's Employee Communications Section and a member of BEPS. Email: nancy.syzdek@jt3.com; Twitter: @nsyzdek.


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