Managing in an Industry Where Trust Is the Currency

After a successful career as a nonprofit organization executive, Alison Green put her experience to work as a workplace advice columnist. Through her popular blog, “Ask a Manager,” as well as a podcast and a new book out this month, Green has answered thousands of questions with practical and empathetic advice on workplace conundrums for managers and team members alike—and responds to a fair number of truly hilarious or crazy real-life situations. She has been featured on NPR’s Marketplace, Slate, CNBC and many other outlets.

We caught up with Green to discuss trust in the workplace: how banks can screen effectively for high-integrity employees, why any lie is a dealbreaker and what companies can do to demonstrate better that they trust their own employees.

Alison Green

Q: In an industry like banking, which places a premium on trust and where the consequences of broken trust can be so high, what can employers do better to screen candidates for trustworthiness?

A: One of the things that’s really important is the way that you talk to references. A lot of employers do sort of your standard background check where you confirm employment dates and so forth, but it’s really important to talk to people who managed the candidate in the past, preferably more than one of them, and ask very probing questions about the person’s work and habits.

It’s surprising to me how often employers treat references as a perfunctory rubber stamp at the end of the hiring process, after they’ve already decided whom they want to hire. If you use them correctly, references can give you so much more insight about a candidate that you would never get from a resume or from interviewing them.

Don’t just rely on the list of references the candidates provide. You should really be rigorous about how you assess that list. Are there recent managers? Are they all peers? It’s OK to think about whom you want to talk to and to say, “Can you put me in touch with the manager from your last job?” if that person isn’t on the list.

And when you get references on the phone, really probe into how the candidate operated, and look for patterns across the references too. If you’re really putting a premium on trustworthiness, that’s going to be a crucial step.

Q: What kinds of questions are most effective in getting at trustworthiness?


A:Describe the things that are most important for the person to do well in the job and some of the specific traits you’re looking for. Then say, “Can you tell me about the times in the past when you’ve seen that person need to do something similar?” Be very clear about what your own needs are and get the person talking about how that candidate might line up with them—or not.

With ethics and integrity perhaps being a more important consideration than otherwise, an example of a good question is: “Can you tell me about a time this person’s integrity was really put to the test?” That kind of framework will usually help you get more nuanced information.

Q: Many companies have policies about not giving references. What do you recommend if a past manager won’t cooperate?

A: You can put your head together with the candidate and problem-solve with them: “Your manager at your most recent job is hamstrung by this policy. Who else at this job might be able to give me some insight?” There might be a more senior manager at the company who is no longer there, or perhaps a client who might be willing to talk. Just lay the problem out for the candidate and enlist them in being your partner in trying to identify people for you to speak to.

Q: You’ve written a lot in your advice column about how even telling a little white lie can be a dealbreaker in the workplace. Why?

A: Even small lies are a pretty big deal because they go right to integrity. If an employee is willing to lie about small things, that means you can’t take them at their word. You can’t have an employee whose word you can’t rely on; you’d need to be checking up on everything they tell you because you don’t know when the lying might be kicking in! That’s not practical. You have to be able to trust that the people working for you are not setting out to deceive you.

It’s a really big issue, even if the lies are small things. I once fired a person for lying to me, and it was about something relatively small. She had said that she had emailed a vendor and hadn’t heard back yet. She had been supposed to do it a week before. I was very sure she hadn’t because of the context. I said, “Can you show me in your email that message?” And indeed, she couldn’t. She at that point acknowledged she’d been lying about it. It sounds like maybe that’s not a lie that’s the end of the world, but as a manager you can’t always be questioning “am I hearing the true story here?”

Q: When you look at trust-related business scandals, the person at the top of the organization may seem innocent and be known as a person of high character. How much does the personal example of a CEO shape the ethical behavior of people within the company?

A: A lot of times it’s just negligent management, which allows there to be really bad management below them, and no one is doing anything about it. You can have a pretty ethical person at the top, but if they’re not really committed to strong rigorous management throughout the organization, there’s nothing stopping really terrible managers from thriving below them.

I think you’ve got to have someone with a really clear vision about what strong and effective management looks like, and who is going to articulate that vision very explicitly to managers at all levels of the organization, and who is going to put systems in place to ensure that managers are managing in line with whatever that vision is. So often you get people running a team or a department and it’s kind of like the Wild West. They’re just managing however they want to manage—they could be tyrannical, they could be hands-off. That’s potentially very toxic to an organization to leave it to chance like that.

Q: Some legacy corporate management practices seem calibrated toward having low trust in employees. In a high-trust environment where you’re effectively screening for candidates of integrity, what kinds of policy changes can leverage that trust to build a better workplace?

A: There’s a broad category here, which is not treating employees like professional adults—approaching them as if they will try to take advantage of you if you don’t have rigid rules to stop them. Some employees will, but if you have good managers, they’ll catch that and address it. The solution to the fact that there are some untrustworthy employees out there is not to treat everyone with a lack of trust!

That kind of lack of trust and treating employees like children plays out in lots of ways: requiring doctor’s notes, writing people up for being two minutes late to work if they’re in a job where precise time of arrival doesn’t really matter. Your best employees are not going to want to work in that environment for long. You will not retain your best people if you treat them that way.