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Canadians have litte confidence, trust in employers

Ashleigh Patterson

The creators of "Undercover Boss" may have been on to something, taking C-suite executives from the corner office to the trenches of their own companies. The reality television show offers a chance for those the most removed from the rank-and-file to glean a whole new perspective on the business -- one that appears to be increasingly needed in Canada.

According to a new survey from Ipsos Reid, the majority of Canadians have little trust or confidence in the senior leadership of their organizations, causing the country's workforce to appear disengaged and downright disgruntled.

A mere 44 per cent of Canadian employees expressed confidence in senior leaders, the survey, conducted on behalf of the Canadian Management Centre, shows. Broken out by industry, transportation, government and retail exhibit the least levels of confidence. While IT and technology show the highest levels.

"We see a gap in trust and confidence increasing between public and private with the public sector really suffering," says Amy Charles, senior vice-president in loyalty with Ipsos Reid.

"Certainly, we can see it in the news even south of the border. We have someone in a very high place having to resign over a damaged moral compass," Charles says referring to the sex scandal that forced CIA Director David Petraeus to resign earlier this month.

Coupled with a lack of confidence in leadership is a keen sense of distrust towards higher ups. Only 40 per cent of employees trust what their senior leaders say with the lowest levels of trust exhibited in Canada's western provinces, the survey showed.

Boosting engagement

Why should employers care? Trust and confidence are directly tied to employee engagement -- a key driver of productivity. If employees aren't engaged, companies risk higher inefficiency, more absenteeism, higher employee turnover and increased costs for chronic illnesses.

A recent survey by Towers Watson revealed a whopping 67 per cent of Canadian workers aren't fully engaged in their current position, leading to feelings of frustration due to insufficient support from their organizations.

"Less engaged employees are less engaged about servicing customers, taking care of customer needs and going over and above for those customers," says John Wright, president and managing director of the Canadian Management Centre. "You start to see turnover rates start to increase in those consumer organization. Compounding that is the fact when you have a turnover issue you then automatically have a hiring issue."

The problem of engagement is not a new one, but human resource clients often complain senior management fails to tackle the problem head on, Wright explains.

"One of the things you can do as a management team is not pay lip service to the fact that your greatest asset is your workforce," he says.

So what steps can senior leadership take to ensure their greatest asset stays engaged?

Stop looking outside your company

Public companies have to focus on shareholder concerns, of course, but if the focus of executives is pleasing stakeholders and boosting profits, employees can often be left behind.

"It's important to ask what percentage of time are they [senior leaders] placing where and that's a great example where there is an over emphasis on thinking of performance purely financially, without realizing the workforce can affect the financial performance," Wright says.

Focus on managerial talent

Mid-level managers play a critical role in retention and reduction of turnover rates. Their direct reports, the boots on the ground, look to them for leadership and guidance. In turn, senior leaders need to focus their attention on fostering talent at the mid-level.

"They're a tremendous asset when trying to have an up-and-down flow of information because sometimes leaders don't know what's going on in the trenches," Wright says.  "It's those managers that are going to bond those employees to the organization by being excellent managers," he says.

Train good leaders

Training mid-level managers to be effective communicators is an area often overlooked by employers. This critical tier in the leadership hierarchy can foster an atmosphere of transparency, confidence and trust, assuming they've been shown the ropes.

"This is a blind spot in many organizations; this notion that you can take a very good employee in the role, promote them and then magically they know how to lead people," says Charles.

While many C-suite leaders won't have the opportunity, or desire, to go undercover and become intimately acquainted with the inner working of their companies, it's important to keep an ear to the ground before a small, seemingly inconsequential, workforce issue begins to affect financial performance.