THE BELIEF-DRIVEN EMPLOYEE, By Richard Edelman, CEO, August 31, 2021

There is a new compact between employee and employer which requires business to take a more ambitious role in society, while fundamentally reconsidering the motives of the worker. The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report: The Belief-Driven Employee, conducted in early August in seven countries, finds that the Covid-19 pandemic has changed values, so that higher wages are no longer a sufficient incentive to work longer and harder. The employee is now as belief-driven in selecting and staying with a company as a consumer is in buying and sticking with a brand. The Employee Value Proposition (EVP) now looks like a tripod, balanced on the traditional enticements of pay and career advancement, a newer focus on employee well-being, with flexible hours and remote work, and now an employer commitment to act for good on society’s biggest challenges. Employers must stand up every leg of this tripod if they want to win and retain the activated employee. 

The pandemic has raised the bar for employers, with personal empowerment and social impact approaching equivalence to advancement and salary raises as must-haves for employees. Social impact increased to 71 percent, up five points in the past three years, while career advancement is at 82 percent and personal empowerment at 77 percent. More than three-quarters of respondents said they have higher expectations of employers than three years ago, with especially high numbers in developing markets (India – 88 percent, Brazil – 81 percent). A stunning six in 10 (61 percent) respondents choose their employer based on beliefs, including refusal to work at the company because of disagreement on social issues (with a high of 87 percent for China). This data is consistent with our findings from the Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report: Trust, The New Brand Equity released in June 2021, which found that more than six in 10 consumers are now belief-driven buyers, with trust now almost equal to price or performance as a purchase driver. 

The pandemic has prompted people to reconsider their work and their lives. One in five respondents told us that they have left their jobs or are planning to do so within the next six months; that number is 41 percent in the U.S., according to ManpowerGroup. The most compelling rationale for departure was finding a better values fit (59 percent), nearly two times higher than better compensation or career advancement (31 percent). There is also a lifestyle aspect to the desire to change jobs (50 percent); nearly half of respondents (43 percent) said their employer is not doing well addressing employee burnout.

The privileged position of My Employer as the most trusted institution (77 percent) demands that the CEO deliver on the issues of the day, from sustainability to re-training to diversity and inclusion.  Employers that take a stand on key issues are much more likely to be attractive destinations. The highest payback for taking a stand and demonstrating commitment is in human rights, healthcare access, economic inequality, gender equality and climate change, with employees between 8x and 9.5x more likely to work for such an organization. By contrast, one-third of respondents have left organizations that failed to take a stand on important societal or political issues.   

There is a substantial warning signal in this Special Report on employees, namely the growing gap between expectations and delivery on commitments. More than two-thirds of employees expect companies to act on their values and say it’s a dealbreaker in taking a job if they don’t; yet less than half give employers high marks in living up to this promise. Even as concerns about pandemic-related job loss have decreased, more than three-quarters of respondents are worried about losing their jobs to factors ranging from the gig economy and a looming recession to automation and artificial intelligence, with more than 80 percent saying it is important for the company to offer training programs to upskill for the future.

Companies should want belief-driven employees. We find they are more likely to stay with the company for many years (76 percent) and recommend the company to other recruits (76 percent). Employers must be ready, however, to deal with a new organizational force, as this belief-driven employee group is more activist (83 percent compared to 65 percent of non belief-driven employees) and willing to take a matter public (50 percent vs. 26 percent).

Building trust with the workforce is key to rebuilding trust across institutions. The Trust Index for the main four institutions—business, NGOs, government and media—is at 76 when Employer Trust is at level 9; that Trust Index slips to 27 when Employer Trust is at level 5. CEOs have a key role to play; the No. 1 Trust driver for employees is the CEO manifesting company values. Deb Elam, formerly global chief diversity officer of GE and president of the GE Foundation, and an Edelman board member, told me that this study is deeply important as a prod to talent leaders at companies to push for substantive change in corporate strategies to recognize the new demands of belief-driven employees. “Empowered employees who can trust their employer during these turbulent times will also have passion to enable business to deliver on its societal commitments,” she says.

We need a new employee-employer compact. First, employees need to be recognized as the most important stakeholder. Second, they must have a voice, both in corporate strategy and in the ability to speak publicly over social or other channels. Third, the employer is required to deliver tangible action on issues, such as health care, the environment and DEI. Fourth, business must train people to be ready for the jobs of the future. Fifth, CEOs must embody their company values and speak publicly about issues that matter. The employees are no longer the supporting cast; they are essential partners in the future of business.

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