The Art of HR: Building Trust

Effective HR leaders are able to generate trust from both employees and managers in their roles. Trust is a foundational building block of effective leadership. Without it, the entire spectrum of leadership collapses, no matter how talented individual leaders are. HR leaders must earn personal trust but also ensure the organization maintains its trust relationship with its employees.

Corporate executives can easily forget what life is really like for the front-line staff. This notion is capitalized on by the popular reality television show, Undercover Boss where CEOs put on disguises and work at the front lines to see how the work really gets done. Robert Kelley (1992) describes the high cost of leader worship in his work on followership. Kelley argues that “the errors of leadership are better overcome…by engaging everyone’s heroism rather than waiting for some improbable hero to emerge” (p. 21). HR leaders can ensure these followers are engaged and connected, but must be effective followers themselves. Ira

Chaleff (2003) describes five “courages” of effective followers. These courageous followers:

  1. Assume responsibility for their actions,
  2. Serve the people around them including their leaders,
  3. Challenge their leaders,
  4. Participate in transformative actions, and
  5. Take moral action in their organizations and with their leaders.

Effective HR leaders help provide a framework for these five courages to blossom and thrive in their organizations. They must be willing to courageously advocate on behalf of all stakeholders (employees, managers, shareholders, customers and the public) when no one else will.

One 2010 study on whistle-blowers in the pharmaceutical industry found that most whistle-blowers attempted to address problems internally first, before resorting to legal action. Each of the whistle-blowers then described the long and tortuous process of legal proceedings (Kesselheim, Studdert and Mello, 2010). Another study found that 89.7% of employees who filed false claims act lawsuits initially reported their concerns internally (as cited by Meinert, 2011). In a perfect world, these practices would not happen in structured environments. But organizations are comprised of imperfect, and occasionally, unethical people. A gutsy HR leader, with credibility from both employees and management, could prevent millions of dollars in litigation if these issues were dealt with internally and in a timely and ethical manner.

HR leaders have a responsibility—even an obligation—to ensure their organization always engages in ethical practices. They must do this by facilitating a high degree of trust and organizational distaste for unethical practices. Their organization’s long-term success is partially dependent on them doing this effectively.

Chaleff, I. (2003). The courageous follower: Standing up to and for our leaders. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Kelley, R.E. (1992). The power of followership: How to create leaders people want to follow and followers who lead themselves. New York: Doubleday.

Kesselheim, A.S., Studdert, D.M., & Mello, M.M. (2010, May 17). Whistle-blowers’ experiences in fraud litigation against pharmaceutical companies. The New England Journal of Medicine, 362(19), 1832-1839.

Meinert, D. (2011, April). Whistle-blowers: Threat or Asset?. HR Magazine, 27-32.

This post is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, “The Art of HR”. For my final Doctoral project, I researched how Top Employers provide effective HR services to their organizations. I compiled my results into this book. Please email me directly if you would like a copy.


About Tim Vanderpyl
I am a student of leadership and human resources, and I'm blogging to share some of my thoughts and ideas with readers. I'm a CHRP (Certified Human Resource Professional) at a large healthcare organization, a graduate of Regent University's Doctor of Strategic Leadership program, and lover of the life that God has gifted me with.

2 Responses to The Art of HR: Building Trust

  1. I enjoyed this post. Based on your experience and research, do find that a key reason employees don’t trust HR professionals as much as they could and should is that many corporate HR departments become little more than “policy police” rather than the leaders they are trained to be?

  2. I think it’s because some HR Professionals see ‘risk management’ as their primary role. That’s the floor, not the ceiling of HR. Sure we have preventative natures to our jobs, but our role is much much more. We like to think that as long as our organization doesn’t have too many lawsuits against it then we are doing our job. I like to think that we are doing our jobs when we find ways for the company to better achieve it mission and increase profits.

    Dave Ulrich once wrote that HR Departments might need to “upgrade” their HR Personnel. He might very well be right.

    Thanks for the comment!

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