Investing in Your Trust Fund: How Human Resource Professionals Build Credible Relationships

When I was a clinical psychologist in private practice, I was often puzzled (although always thrilled) as to why my therapy clients got better.  When I asked them, explanations inevitably focused on our therapeutic relationship.

“You really seemed to care about me.” “You were always there to listen.”  “I felt safe enough to tell you things I’ve never told anyone.”  Essentially, the talk centered on the quality of our relationship rather than the therapeutic techniques I spent years studying.

The same seems to be true of human resource professionals.  After over two decades of management and human resource consulting, I have consistently found that the effectiveness of an organization’s human resource department centers on the managers’ and employees’ ability to trust the HR staff.

Building Trust with Employees

Trust is a more complicated concept than it at first appears. While trust is most often thought of as an intangible gut feeling, in reality it is a complex mixture of four basic ingredients – credibility, reliability, intimacy, and personal orientation:

1. Credibility has to do with the words we speak–are we believable?   When managers and employees are evaluating their human resource department’s credibility, they look well beyond credentials to theperson’s behavior, demonstrated expertise, and interpersonal demeanor.

* Trust builder: Be a constant source of information.  Supply information to employees on a wide range of employment issues through a variety of media.  If possible, provide information on a weekly or daily basis on a variety of topics that directly impact or benefit employees.  Use as many communication methods as possible.  They’ll soon come to see you as a resource, rather than an obstacle.

* Trust builder:  Know your stuff.  Continuously learn and stay up on the trends and issues of your industry.  Insist on rigorously clear thinking about HR issues; rather than blindly pursuing employee retention programs, for example, have a point of view about the right level of turnover and about the payback, return on investment and pro-cons of alternative approaches to retention; and about the priority of retention among other general business initiatives.

2. Reliability has to do with the actions we take–are you dependable?   The factors that go into this part of the equation are predictability, dependability and familiarity.  For instance, does you treat employees onsistently, follow-through on your commitments, and respond quickly to problems and requests for information?

* Trust builder:  Get your ducks in a row.  The quickest way to lose credibility with a workforce is to make mistakes.  Not meeting deadlines, making “minor” errors, and not following through on promises will come back to haunt you every time. HR is watched bymany eyes and can’t afford to be sloppy or incomplete.

3. Intimacy has to do with safety of the interactions between human resources and managers/employees.  The intimacy factor essentiallyhas to do with a sense that the human resource professional isdiscrete, understands how the manager or employee feels, and knowshow to deal with that knowledge.

* Trust builder:  Get clear with yourself.   It’s tricky to be the liaison between employees and employers.  If you have unresolved conflicts in your belief systems about the rights, obligations, andethics of employees versus employers, it’s important to either resolve them or clarify them. Managers can respect the integrity ofthose they disagree with; but they will never trust those with unclear belief systems.

* Trust builder:  Make your role known.  Oftentimes, employees misunderstand how HR operates.  To combat this phenomenon, advertise your job, including your mission, your role, and your services.  Also make it clear how you handle “confidential” information.  The more they know, the more they trust and respect you.

* Trust builder:  Avoid favoritism.  Don’t turn to the same manager for input over and over again. Avoid socializing exclusively with senior managers or with specific managers/employees.  If managers or employees perceive that you have “special relationships” with certain members of the organization, they will be much less likely to trust you to be impartial.

4.  Self- Orientation has to do with attention, i.e., on whom is your attention focused?  Human resource professionals often have only the best motives, but worry about how they are being perceived, about how smart they seem, and about whether they’ll get the job. To that extent, they may not focus on the manager or employee in front of them–and to that extent they won’t be trusted.

* Trust builder: Constantly ask for feedback.   Conduct annual surveys and customer focus groups to find out what your employees and customers think.  Pursue continuous improvement as a result of the feedback.  Those who are always getting better are always more respected.

* Trust builder:  Listen for understanding.   Listening for understanding means creating a relationship with those you are listening to which they experience being completely heard and understood.  This involves understanding the other party’s perspective before progressing to a discussion regarding agreement or disagreement.  This also involves listening to much more than the content of what is said; it means listening, and asking questions about, the history behind the current issue, the thoughts and feelings about the issue, and the intentions behind why the other person is saying what s/he is saying.

The Bottom Line

The Godfather had it wrong when he said, “It’s not personal, it’s business.” The truth is, business is personal.  And human resources, as the liaison between employer and employee, serve as the personal representative by which the trustworthiness of an organization is judged.

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