Category: Ethics, Morality & Integrity / Topics: Ethics Organizational Development Personal Development

Who Do You Trust?

Striving to be honest and trustworthy

by Stu Johnson

Posted: May 12, 2015

As confidence in institutions declines, can we restore honesty and trust?

Before Johnny Carson and sidekick Ed McMahon found fame and fortune on NBC’s The Tonight Show, they were the emcee/announcer team on an afternoon quiz program on ABC called “Who Do You Trust?” from 1958 to 1962.  The program involved three couples with unique backgrounds. After a chat with the host, the husband would be asked four questions from a number of categories—which he could answer himself or “trust” his wife to provide the answers.  The winning couple could return to the show until defeated. Erik and Helena Guide stayed long enough to earn $120,800...a tidy sum then, but nearly a million dollars today. [1] [2]

“Who do you trust?” is a question being asked a lot lately in the news, from politicians to government agencies and corporations. There isn’t room to list all the issues of trust and accountability that surround us today.

Think about the qualities of the people around you—family, friends, co-workers, vendors, places you shop, people you rely on for services.  Who do you trust the most among them?  What are the qualities that make you trust—or not trust—them?

Declining trust

In my study of Religion in America. I found that Gallup has reported confidence in organized religion steadily on the decline. In 1973 it was first among 16 American institutions, with about two-thirds of adults expressing confidence in it. In the 1980s, while it remained first, confidence fell below 60%, largely because of scandals involving the finances and lifestyles of televangelists and accusations of child molestation by Catholic priests. By 2012, religion was fourth, approaching the tipping point of 50% confidence. 

Organized religion is not alone, however. Gallup has seen the same decline in all of the institutions surveyed, with public schools, banks, and television news at all-time lows. So, we really are faced with the question, “Who do you trust?” 

Not significant?

A few days ago there were news reports about the abuse of credit cards by Pentagon workers, revealed by an audit that showed more than $1-million in more than 5,000 transactions. No laws were reportedly broken because individuals must pay back these expenses, so supposedly no taxpayer money was involved. [3] Can you trust that statement? What about the audit itself, the staff time in dealing with the offenders, the time and people involved in recouping the improper charges, etc.?

One radio report I heard contained a statement that the $1-million dollar was actually quite small—“not significant.”  Even if in this case the money was returned, the action was significant enough to bring administrative action against 364 cardholders, most of whom have undergone counseling on the use of cards, and at least one military officer was demoted one rank.

There are plenty of other cases where abuse and fraud of similar—or far greater—magnitude have occurred, and all of the impact involved taxpayer money.  In these case, too, there have been similar attempts to downplay the situation as insignificant in the bigger picture. Really?

The Department of Defense requested $495.6-billion for FY 2015. [4]   $1-million represents 0.2% of the total budget, which does appear insignificant.  But that is only one example of abuse and fraud.  Furthermore, significance is a matter of scale. Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen is credited with saying, “a billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.” [5] With that perspective, a million wouldn’t even begin to count!   But think about it from the other end of the scale: how many years would it take you to pay $1-million in individual federal income tax?

Honest and trustworthy

The other day I was reading the story of King Josiah of Judah (ca. 622 BC) who wanted to make repairs to the temple in Jerusalem.  Here’s what Josiah said to his secretary...

“Go to Hilkiah the high priest and have him count the money the gatekeepers have collected from the people at the Lord’s Temple. Entrust this money to the men assigned to supervise the restoration of the Lord’s Temple. Then they can use it to pay workers to repair the Temple. They will need to hire carpenters, builders, and masons. Also have them buy the timber and the finished stone needed to repair the Temple. But don’t require the construction supervisors to keep account of the money they receive, for they are honest and trustworthy men.” (emphasis added) [6]

The last sentence struck me as quite incredible. How many people or companies could you describe that way today?  When you pass a construction site, do you think about corruption, kick-backs, poor quality—or do you trust the work to have been acquired and conducted honestly, with the best possible quality?   Are your local school officials public servants you trust and admire, or do they seem more concerned with feathering their own nests?  (Our local community college is embroiled in such a situation as I write this).

Built on trust

I was recently driving behind a truck for a plumbing company. Under the company name on the back of the truck was the slogan “A company built on trust.”  

Because most homeowners are not experts in the world behind our walls and under our sinks, we have to trust in the word of the plumbers, electricians, and other tradesmen we bring in to our homes. Yet, how many stories have you heard of people being taken advantage of? 

How do you find workers you can trust? Referrals by friends and neighbors are key, along with the tools now available through the internet (services like Angie’s List or Home Advisor, and to some extent website comments and social media, though they involved their own issues with trust). We want workers who are honest and trustworthy.

Building trust

Human nature is flawed. Some may blame it on sin, a broken relationship with God, others on naturalistic causes. Nonetheless, few would argue that we need accountability, standards, regulation, laws because of our imperfect nature.   Here are a few ways to build trust from my observations:

  • Be honest. I’m not sure who said it first, but I have heard more than one person attribute a quote similar to this to a wise mother: “Tell the truth, then tomorrow you don’t need to remember what you said.”  Honesty is not only good for the impression you make on others, but it takes much less mental and emotional energy in the long run.

    Related to honesty is a favorite word of politicians, transparency. To be “transparent” is meant as a form of honesty related to information and intentions.  Unless it is achieved in reasonable fashion, however, it opens the door to greater criticism.

    To be truly transparent means you risk revealing things that reflect poorly on you as well as things that show goodness and worthy accomplishment.  The negative should be an opportunity for honest explanation or apology, not an excuse for equivocation (or worse, being dishonest by not revealing them—better not to promise transparency in the first place if you don’t intend to fully deliver). 

  • Be accountable. From the televangelist scandals of the 1980s, to the personal indiscretions that have brought down respected politicians, to disgraced business leaders whose greed consumed them, all show the need to recognize our weaknesses early and build defenses against them. There are numerous areas in which this applies, but I will mention two that seem to hit every organization.

    • Prevent fiscal temptation.  Set up and observe accepted practices of good accounting.  These typically involve separating revenue from spending, having multiple people involved to avoid collusion, a budget and compliance system appropriate to the size of the organization, and a good record keeping system.  

      In a very large organization, even a good system can be crushed under its own weight, so it is even more important to find ways to prevent the kinds of abuse we saw in the recent Pentagon credit card abuse case. There should be no excuse for abuse...everything is significant!
    • The sexual revolution and the workplace.  Our culture is so saturated with sexuality that it creates a catch-22. On the one hand, sexual adventure and exploitation are expected (at least if your worldview is shaped by television and movies).  On the other hand, even attempts to be kind and human (a hug, a pat on the shoulder, a compassionate touch) can immediately throw you into accusations of sexual harassment and the machinery of political correctness and the need for sensitivity training.   

      In one school setting, the human resources director was talking to employees about appropriate behavior under sexual harassment laws and procedures. He advised an approach of absolutely no touching.  One faculty member stood up and said, “I’m sorry, God made me a hugger.”  That also brings to mind the image of a male friend of ours, a wonderful elementary teacher, standing in the hall at the end of the day with several of his third graders hanging on his coat while he patted their heads as they said goodbye.

      Of course discretion is needed, but the attempts to avoid abuse have led to the denial of the positive aspects of human touch—not sexual, but demonstrations of encouragement, compassion, empathy, friendship, simple human connectedness. Sadly, our over-sexed and litigious society (and organizations without the accountability to prevent real abuse), have removed that important aspect of being human.  We are all losers.

      During the televangelist scandals, the pastor of a large church revealed his use of a small group of men (yes, purposely limited to men) to serve as an accountability group. They met with the pastor at least once a week and were expected to hold him accountable for personal behavior, an area not covered by other forms of accountability built into the church structure.  In my own church, one of the first things a new pastor did was to have a window installed in the door between his office and the church office.
  • Respect your customers.  It seems that mistrust is coupled with disrespect. When you have things to hide, you become dishonest and, as a result, lose respect for your customers (internal as well as external). From another perspective, the pressures of the bottom line, especially with the growing influence of globalization, can cause an organization to do things that similarly result in a lowering of respect for customers.

    An acquaintance of mine who served on a trade association board with me had come from the furniture industry in Grand Rapids, Michigan, known as the home of several leading furniture manufacturers. Telling me about the company he used to work for, he said that a key part of their mission was to make good work for their employees. Thinking back, I remember a sense of the respect that represented for the employees—their internal customers—and how that translated to the marketplace—their external customers.

    Sadly, as the Gallup data suggests, confidence in business has declined along with other bedrock institutions in American society.  Despite the pressures of a tough global marketplace, could it be that showing greater respect for customers—internal as well as external—could be one more ingredient in seeking to be a great (and profitable) company, and one known as being honest and trustworthy?


  1. Do you trust Wikipedia? Then see   
  2. The estimate was made using the US Inflation Calculator
  3. “Pentagon Workers in Jackpot Over Casino, Strip Card Charges” by Jim Miklaszewski and Courtney Kube, NBC News
  4. United States Department of Defense Fiscal Year 2015 Budget Request
  5. From Wikiquote: “Although often quoted, it seems Dirksen never actually said this. The Dirksen Congressional Research Center made an extensive search when fully 25% of enquiries to them were about the quotation. They could find Dirksen did say "a billion here, a billion there", and things close to that, but not the "pretty soon you're talking real money" part. They had one gentleman report to them he had asked Dirksen about it on an airflight and received the reply: "Oh, I never said that. A newspaper fella misquoted me once, and I thought it sounded so good that I never bothered to deny it."
  6. From the Old Testament of the Bible, 2 Kings 22:4-7 (New Living Translation)

Stu Johnson is owner of Stuart Johnson & Associates, a communications consultancy in Wheaton, Illinois focused on "making information make sense."

E-mail the author (moc.setaicossajs@uts*)

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Posted: May 12, 2015   Accessed 649 times

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