Environmental, Social & Governance3 min read

Trust in the Workplace Requires Listening, Dialogue and Transparency

Nicola Acutt

Trust is one of the most valuable assets in the world, but it’s also one that is increasingly scarce. Trust in institutions—and in each other—has been declining for years. Yet new research points toward a singular bright spot: trust in employers.

I recently participated in an event to mark the launch of Trust in the Workplace, a special report based on findings from the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer. The report finds that people rate trust in “my employer” 27 points higher than trust in other institutions such as the media, NGOs and government. It also suggests that co-workers find it easier to debate important issues with each other than with neighbors.

These are remarkable findings that raise a key question: What’s the source of this trust? After much reflection, I think the answer comes down to a single phrase: mutual respect.

Respect is eroding all around us. We see it daily from pundits and politicians on television and in anonymous comments on social media: harsh language, reductive arguments, and assumptions of bad intent. This inability to communicate in constructive ways not only harms relationships—it undermines trust.

Meanwhile, the workplace has long reinforced the expectation of mutual respect. It turns out that this expectation gives individuals a safe space to have social conversations in a non-polarizing way. And this foundation of respect has persisted, even as topics like climate change, race, gender and reproductive health have made their way into the office—a point that Edelman’s research bears out.

So, when Richard Edleman and the moderator, Kevin Delaney asked me if we can learn anything from the workplace that we can use to bolster respect elsewhere, it really made me think! What came to mind is what I have observed working at VMware for the last 12 years.

The first is listening—inviting people to openly share their viewpoints and be heard.

The second factor flows naturally from the first: dialogue. This involves not just talking about it but creating structures or forums where people can engage with each other on important issues without fear of judgment or retaliation.

The final factor, and perhaps the most important, is transparency around any actions or decisions resulting from that listening and dialogue.

Taken together, these three factors support a culture of mutual respect inside the workplace, and they’ve underpinned much of our approach to engagement around environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues at VMware.

On the engagement side, VMware has created multiple channels for people to offer feedback and communicate in the way they’re most comfortable. Internally, this includes everything from employee listening circles, surveys and anonymous feedback opportunities to ask-me-anything forums, skip-level meetings and company culture surveys. We also have a robust network of employee resource groups, which we call Power of Difference (PODs) communities, that empower employees to bring their full identities to work. Externally, we host special roundtables and forums that give customers and partners the opportunity to make their voices heard.

Being intentional about putting in place structures to enable listening and dialogue has been as important as embracing transparency when communicating decisions or difficult information. I saw first-hand how essential this was to help us navigate and respond to workplace changes that arose during the pandemic and challenging topics of discussion amid the George Floyd protests.

In today’s workplace, ESG is often interconnected with many complex and challenging social issues. Being able to embrace these new realities well is firmly rooted in principles of listening, dialogue and transparency. We regularly listen to and engage with stakeholders to ensure our ESG efforts align with emerging best practices and reflect the needs of our customers, suppliers, partners and more. As part of our efforts to drive transparency around our ESG performance, we have challenged ourselves to enhance our ESG disclosures year-over-year. This is on display in our most recent ESG Report, which shares VMware’s progress towards our 2030 Agenda and ESG commitments. Ultimately, we recognize that trust isn’t something that’s earned once through a single action or statement. It’s something that needs to be earned day after day. Companies that lead in ESG strive to earn trust from all our stakeholders through listening, dialogue and transparency built on a culture of mutual respect.

Can some of these principles and practices from the workplace be used to bolster trust elsewhere in society?  I’d like to think so. Like all societal challenges, this requires working together across different institutions, and a foundation of mutual respect will be imperative to making progress.