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As trust in public institutions erodes, Canadians are looking to their employers to address some of the country’s greatest challenges.

According to the 2022 instalment of the Edelman Trust Barometer – a global survey of 36,000 respondents across 28 countries, including 1,500 in Canada – Canadians are less trusting in media, government and the business community at large than they were last year.

While these institutions, and non-governmental organizations received overall trust scores of between 52 and 55 out of 100, trust in “my employer” remains significantly higher, at 76.

“Historically, we have looked to governments to solve societal problems, with the support of NGOs that are focused on specific issues, and there’s now this acknowledgment that they haven’t been successful,” said Lisa Kimmel, president and CEO of Edelman Canada.

“It’s clear that business leaders have to take much more responsibility when it comes to addressing societal problems, and that business leadership is now also societal leadership – that’s a fundamental shift.”

According to the study, a majority of Canadians expect their CEOs to inform and shape conversations and policy debates around jobs, automation, wage inequality, climate change, discrimination, immigration and COVID-19 vaccination. In addition, 78 per cent of respondents say their CEO should be personally visible in conversations on these matters, and 54 per cent expect their business leaders to address controversial social and political issues that they care about.

These heightened expectations, according to Ms. Kimmel, are the result of a number of concurrent trends. Trust in public institutions has been on the decline in most Western democracies for years, while the pandemic provided business leaders the opportunity to demonstrate strong leadership and empathy, and ultimately build trust. Furthermore, in today’s candidate-friendly job market, employees often feel they have more influence on their employer’s actions than they do other institutions.

“Even if you vote, you still might not get the desired outcome, but as an employee, you can literally make that decision [to stay or quit] on a daily basis – you don’t have to wait until the next election,” Ms. Kimmel said. “You have the opportunity to decide if you want to stay with this employer or not, based not just on compensation, but the values, beliefs and purpose of the organization.”

The heightened levels of trust enjoyed by CEOs as compared with other institutions can be both a gift and a curse, according to David Moscrop, an Ottawa-based political analyst and writer.

Mr. Moscrop studied institutional trust as part of his political science PhD thesis, has written on the subject as a columnist for the Washington Post and is the author of Too Dumb for Democracy? Why We Make Bad Political Decisions and How We Can Make Better Ones.

“Trust is very hard to gain and very easy to lose, but once you have it, you want to use it for something, you want to put that capital to use. The question is how to do that in a way that’s productive and sustainable,” he said. “You could squander it very easily if you’re not careful.”

Mr. Moscrop explains that institutional trust can be viewed as a form of currency; one that is hard to earn and should therefore be spent wisely. For example, governments that enjoy high levels of trust have an easier time pursuing bold policy agendas.

“You can [use trust capital] to ask a considerable amount from people, for instance, to follow public-health restrictions,” he said. “Once trust starts to fade, it becomes more difficult to get away with that, because they start saying ‘no,’ and you face compliance issues and backlash.”

Employers, meanwhile, typically spend that capital on talent attraction and retention, using their values as a key selling point to entice current and prospective staff.

However, Mr. Moscrop warns that businesses that fail to live up to their values can suffer reputational damage that will make it more difficult to lure talent moving forward, especially in today’s highly competitive labour market.

He adds that online employer-review platforms and social media now provide access to information that can help employees and prospective hires determine whether the organization is living up to the values it espouses.

“People have more information than they ever have before, and it potentially allows them to make better decisions.” he said.

Experts also warn that there is a danger in putting that much faith in for-profit institutions to address societal issues that fall outside of their purview.

“At the end of the day, the private sector is structured differently than the public sector,” said Brad Graham, vice-president of the Institute on Governance, an independent think tank headquartered in Ottawa. “Regardless of how much a private sector entity wants to be socially aware, they also have to be very mindful of share prices, so there are limits.”

Mr. Graham said that while Canadians want their employers to take a stand on issues they feel passionate about, they shouldn’t take that as a mandate to overstep their role and wade into politics. In fact, according to the Edelman study, the vast majority of Canadians believe their employer should avoid weighing in on federal leadership, education and health care related issues.

“People see a value and role for things like [addressing] climate change, because the private sector has a huge role to play, and Canadians want to see more active participation to achieve the goal – but not necessarily to take over the leadership of it,” he said. “The message is, ‘don’t get into politics, but help achieve policy goals.’ ”

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