For environment, health and safety (EHS) and sustainability leaders, stakeholder engagement is becoming an increasingly important part of their strategies—and for good reason. Stakeholder engagement builds rapport and strengthens communication. It helps you gather useful insights to improve your programs. But above all, it builds a foundation of trust for all parties—and trust is what fuels buy-in, action, and success.

However, after an intense year of political, economic and social upheaval, the general state of trust across the globe is imploding, according to the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer Survey.

“We have moved beyond the point of trust being simply a key factor in product purchase or selection of employment opportunity; it is now the deciding factor in whether a society can function,” the executive summary states. "As trust in institutions erodes, the basic assumptions of fairness, shared values and equal opportunity traditionally upheld by ‘the system’ are no longer taken for granted.”

From our perspective, the erosion of trust has important implications for EHS and sustainability leaders—from both a business and stakeholder engagement perspective. Below we highlight three key survey insights that reinforce the importance of building trust and engagement among stakeholders to drive EHS, sustainability, and business success.

Insight 1: Business is the “last retaining wall” of trust

For the last 17 years, the annual Edelman Trust Barometer Survey has outlined the global population’s general “state of trust” across four key institutions: Business, governments, media and NGOs. This year, for the first time in survey history, trust in all four institutions declined—but business was designated the “last retaining wall” of trust.

“With a higher trust score than government, business is, in effect, the last retaining wall, holding back a rising tide of dissatisfaction,” the summary explains. “If business disappoints, it too will fall victim to the rising tide.”

What this means for EHS and sustainability leaders: EHS and sustainability are becoming increasingly intertwined with an organization’s overall business strategy. Of course, this means that the success of these initiatives can directly impact the success of the business. Since stakeholder buy-in and participation are crucial to moving your efforts forward, you need a solid and smart stakeholder engagement strategy.

Insight 2: Treating employees well is key to building business trust

According to Edelman, the No. 1 way companies can build trust is by simply treating their employees well.

“No single action is more interconnected with building trust than ‘treating employees well.’ And yet what that action entails today is far more complex than good pay and benefits. It goes beyond surveying employees about engagement,” the summary states. “Rather, the best companies are deeply listening and strategically integrating those insights to help shape the future of their business. What’s more, if the majority believes the system isn’t working, business must infer that their employees are a subset of this population—which further underscores the necessity of listening as a trust-building and operational imperative.”

What this means for EHS and sustainability leaders: While EHS may be rooted in compliance, its greater and perhaps most important purpose is to ensure the health, safety and well-being of every employee. Strategic and thoughtful stakeholder engagement—and taking action on what you learn—allows you to show your employees they matter, and that they play an important role in creating a happier and healthier work environment.

Insight 3: Stakeholders want to be engaged

While treating employees well was ranked as the top trust builder, the survey also uncovered 13 other important factors—many that can be directly tied to stakeholder engagement—including: Listening to customers, frequent and honest communication, protecting and improving the environment, and addressing the needs of societies in everyday business.

“No longer is it effective for organizations to operate autonomously, using a traditional top-down approach,” the summary says. “A flatter, more participative model is necessary to generate support from stakeholders.”

What this means for EHS and sustainability leaders: From NGOS to employees to customers, your EHS and sustainability initiatives touch a variety of different stakeholder groups, each possessing unique insights and influence—and they want to be heard. So, if thoughtful stakeholder engagement isn’t part of your EHS and sustainability strategy, your programs and your business won’t be successful.

For more tips and insights on stakeholder engagement, read our post Smart Stakeholder Engagement: 6 Tips for EHS & Sustainability Managers.

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