Newswise — Secrecy in organizational policy enforcement is an important factor undermining employee trust in organizations over time, according to a new study from the University of California, Irvine. Unlike interpersonal trust, which tends to increase with experience, employee trust in their organization decreases with experience.

The paper, a Distinguished Scholars Invited Essay titled, “Are Secret Proceedings Why Longer Tenured Employees Trust Their Organizations Least?,” was co-authored by UCI Paul Merage School of Business doctoral program alumnus Kenji Klein, PhD, and published in the Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies.

“The decline happens incrementally over the span of an employee’s tenure with their organization when policy enforcement is kept secret from other employees,” said Jone Pearce, Dean’s Professor of organization and management at the UCI Paul Merage School of Business and lead author of the study. “Secret proceedings weaken, rather than support, employees’ perceptions that policy enforcement is taken seriously, which then works to undermine trust in their organizations.”

Unlike legal trial proceedings, most organizations’ policy enforcement proceedings lack the fundamental feature of due process procedures: They are not open. In addition, organizational secrecy can spread as employees assume secrecy is what the organization expects, and so they withhold information that they should be sharing, potentially causing additional harm to organizations and employees alike.  Organizations argue that secrecy surrounding policy enforcement is done for reasons of privacy, for the organization itself and for the complainants and accused.

“Being open about enforcement proceedings helps protect against someone making false charges and allows all employees to know that violations have consequences,” said Pearce. “Openness keeps those rendering judgement honest, while secrecy undermines accountability.  Hiding enforcement proceedings may help a company or its employees avoid embarrassment; however, it comes at a price.  And, that price is a loss of trust in the authorities and their policies.”

Understanding why employees with more tenure trust their organizations less also has important theoretical and practical implications for human resources management practices. Longer tenured employees are often sources of guidance for newer employees on understanding organizational values and expectations, and may spread their low trust to their less experienced coworkers, further undermining others’ organizational trust.

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Journal Link: Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, July-2017