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Leadership | May 9

Preserving employee trust during crisis  

Leadership | May 9

Research has shown that trust facilitates and strengthens employee commitment and effort, but how do we ensure we have it?

Nicole Gillespie

Nicole Gillespie KPMG Chair in Organizational Trust and Professor of Management at the University of Queensland Business School

Reading Time 7 minutes

Rosalind Searle

Rosalind Searle Chair in Human Resource Management and Organisational Psychology, Adam Smith Business School

Stefanie Gustafsson

Stefanie Gustafsson Senior Lecturer, University of Bath

Veronica Hope Hailey

Veronica Hope Hailey Fellow of the CIPD and Emeritus Professor at the School of Management, University of Bath

Although trust is always important in organisations, it becomes particularly vital during crises and periods of disruption. In times of change, trust facilitates the ability of employees at all levels of an organisation to navigate through and respond constructively to disruptions. It also underpins the organisation’s ability to be agile and resilient.  

Yet it is during crises and disruption — when trust is most required — that it is also more likely to be lost. The Covid-19 pandemic posed just such a threat. It required organisational leaders and policymakers to make rapid, large-scale changes to both sustain organisational viability and maintain the flexibility and ability to later scale up and rapidly return to their core business once the pandemic passed. To ensure organisational survival, they were forced to make tough and unpopular decisions, such as to cut pay and work hours, and lay off workers temporarily or permanently. The uncertainty and unpredictability of the pandemic jolted employees out of their familiar ways, including their habitual trust of their employers, and heightened their sense of vulnerability. In such a context, employees need and seek reassurance from their employer that their continued trust is deserved. 

Practices for preserving employee trust during crises  

Practice 1: build a mental bridge to the future, founded on core values and purpose  

Develop a shared understanding of how the organisation will navigate the crisis:  

  • Communicate the organisation’s current situation and challenges.
  • Communicate the changes required to effectively navigate these challenges.
  • Explain why the changes are necessary and how they will lead to a positive future.
  • Explain how the changes will protect the organisation’s core values and purpose.
  • Clarify the collective priorities and how these will help navigate the crisis.

Communicate changes in a timely, open, honest, and respectful manner throughout the crisis: 

  • Be up-front and authentic about required changes and the likely effects on employees.  
  • Create ample two-way communication opportunities for employee questions and concerns to be openly raised and discussed (e.g., holding town halls and Q and A sessions).  
  • Be transparent and share relevant information across all levels of the organisation.  
  • Plan communication messaging, timing, and channels to ensure consistency and minimize rumours.  
  • Ensure senior leaders are accessible, visible, and active in delivering communications.  
  • Create reliable and consistent communication structures (for instance, by giving frequent briefings about developments and changes).  

Draw on and reinforce established foundations of trust throughout the crisis (e.g., values and purpose):  

  • Identify and reinforce the organisational values, purpose, relationships, practices, structures, and processes that built and sustained employee trust before the crisis.
  • Serve as a role model of behaviour that demonstrates organisational values.  
  • Use symbols, stories, and language to reinforce and amplify values and purpose.  
  • Draw on shared identities to build unity and solidarity during the crisis.  

Overall goal: Shift employee mindset from ‘the future is uncertain and unpredictable’ to ‘I understand what is going on, how we are navigating this crisis, and how the changes will help protect our organisation in the future.’ 

Practice 2: care for and support employees emotionally and practically  

Demonstrate care and concern for employees:

  • Acknowledge the difficulties and challenges that employees face (such as fear about future and anxiety about their job situation).  
  • Prioritise the health and safety of employees and their families.  
  • Listen to and address employee concerns and needs. 
  • Promote and support collective efforts to help employees support one another.  

Help employees to emotionally cope with the crisis:

  • Create safe, supportive spaces, structures, and mechanisms that enable employees to work through difficult emotions (for instance, by taking the time for personal conversations).  
  • Provide a variety of support mechanisms to help employees develop their coping capabilities, well-being, and mental health (such as employee assistance programs, well-being initiatives, and one-on-one or small group conversations).  

Support line and middle managers in efforts to care for their direct reports: 

  • Ensure all employees — including managers — have a clear point of contact and support throughout the crisis.  
  • Equip line and middle managers with the knowledge and tools to support their people.  
  • Encourage line and middle managers to proactively connect with and support their direct reports, either virtually or face to face.  

Protect jobs as much as possible:

  • Develop and implement proactive strategies to protect jobs (such as collective cost cutting, partial pay cuts, and reduced work hours).  
  • Redeploy employees as required to preserve jobs.  
  • Create opportunities for skill development to support redeployment.  

Overall goal: Shift employee mindset from ‘I am feeling overwhelmed and worry I will lose my job’ to ‘My employer cares and is supporting me though this difficult time and is doing everything it can to protect my job.’ 

Practice 3: empower employees and treat them fairly  

Involve employees in changes and decisions that affect them:

  • Consult employees on changes and decisions affecting them throughout the process.  
  • Communicate the ways that employee concerns and contributions have been considered.  
  • Give employees choices regarding changes that affect them, when possible.  

Ensure changes and decisions are implemented fairly:

  • Ensure that fair, transparent procedures and processes are used consistently when changes are implemented and decisions are made (such as when redeployment and job losses become necessary).  
  • Communicate decisions that affect employees promptly and openly.  
  • Fully explain how and why decisions were made.  
  • When cuts and loss of benefits are required, show how these are fairly distributed across the organisation, including across management levels.  
  • Treat employees with respect and dignity always.  

Clarify and recognise employee efforts and contributions to navigating the crisis:

  • Clarify the work each group of employees needs to prioritize through the crisis.  
  • Regularly acknowledge collective and individual efforts and contributions.  
  • Recognise the challenges employees have worked through to meet goals.  
  • Acknowledge and thank employees when milestones and achievements are met.  

Overall goal: Shift employee mindset from ‘I have no control over or input into what happens and worry about how I will be treated’ to ‘I am treated fairly through the changes, have a say in decisions that affect me, and am playing a role in helping the organisation navigate this crisis.’ 

How do the practices preserve trust? 

Collectively, the practices we recommend shore up trust through two primary mechanisms. First, they reassure employees that the organisation will continue to be trustworthy and behave predictably in how it responds to the crisis and treats its employees. Trustworthiness is a multifaceted concept comprising three key components: benevolence, integrity, and ability. The practices we recommend address all three components to varying extents.  

  • Benevolence is demonstrated by putting people first and treating them with care and humanity throughout the crisis and during any organisational changes it necessitates. 
  • Integrity is demonstrated by openly and honestly sharing information and living the organisation’s shared values.  
  • Ability is demonstrated by devising and implementing strategies for navigating the crisis effectively.  

When employees have confidence in the organisation’s benevolence, integrity, and ability, trust follows. Of the three components, we found benevolence to be the most critical when it comes to preserving trust. 

Second, the practices reduce employees’ perception of vulnerability by decreasing the uncertainty felt as a result of the crisis. This is accomplished by involving employees in decisions and changes that affect them, giving them a sense of control, and emphasising the values and purpose of the organisation and other familiar foundations of trust that already exist within it. Involvement in decision making and the transparency that accompanies it reassure employees that their organisations will not blindside them. 


In times of crises and disruption, the preservation of employee trust in their organisations is vitally important to weathering the upheaval. Our research shows that employee trust can not only be preserved but even enhanced during times of crisis. However, preserving trust depends on organisational leaders and managers proactively and consistently engaging over time in the practices we have outlined in this article. Collectively, the practices offer a way for leaders to preserve trust by reducing employees’ sense of uncertainty and vulnerability (that is, their perceived risk) and demonstrating the organisation’s trustworthiness in the response to the crisis. 

The process of preserving trust is fraught with challenges, and leaders often make mistakes along the journey. However, by acting with authenticity, integrity, and humanity, leaders who diligently expend the effort to retain trust and stay true to organisational values and purpose through difficult times are likely to garner support and have errors forgiven. The silver lining to the hard work spent on preserving trust through a crisis is enhanced organisational agility and the resilience to navigate and bounce back from the crisis, as well as employees’ trust in the organisation’s ability to respond to future crises. 

About The Author

Veronica Hope Hailey

Veronica Hope Hailey Fellow of the CIPD and Emeritus Professor at the School of Management, University of Bath

Rosalind Searle

Rosalind Searle Chair in Human Resource Management and Organisational Psychology, Adam Smith Business School

Stefanie Gustafsson

Stefanie Gustafsson Senior Lecturer, University of Bath

Nicole Gillespie

Nicole Gillespie KPMG Chair in Organizational Trust and Professor of Management at the University of Queensland Business School

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