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PwC survey shows ‘trust’ in business is a delicate dance

September 22, 2021, 10:00 AM UTC

Good morning! This is Fortune’s Rey Mashayekhi, filling in again for Sheryl today.

The notion of “trust” in business is a tricky one. The trust between a company, its employees, and its consumers can often be tenuous at best; all it takes is a few missteps—which can easily evolve into high-profile controversies or outright scandals—to fray those relationships, and force companies to commence the painstaking work of rebuilding that trust back up again.

With its inaugural Trust in US Business Survey, released last week, PricewaterhouseCoopers set about identifying and profiling the nature of the trust between that holy trinity of company, employee, and consumer. And while the survey found plenty of areas in which varying stakeholders differed greatly in their view of trust, it also located a few “foundational elements” that constitute the common ground on which trust is able to operate.

PwC identified four key “foundational elements of trust” shared between business executives, employees, and consumers: data protection and cybersecurity; treating employees well; ethical business practices; and admitting mistakes. “Across the board—executives, consumers, and employees—there is a general agreement on those four things,” Mohamed Kande, U.S. consulting solutions co-leader and global advisory leader at PwC, told me.

But beyond those four issues is where opinions diverge, according to Kande. He notes that when it comes to trust, business leaders tend to “have a bit of a broader view,” with a focus on big-picture issues like responsible use of artificial intelligence and transparent ESG reporting. Employees and consumers, meanwhile, more closely identify trust with notions of communication, transparency, and accountability from businesses and their leaders.

All parties, however, agree that the buck stops at the top: 73% of all respondents identified the CEO as most responsible or accountable for trust, while 65% said the same for the CFO. Business leaders, meanwhile, most commonly cited the managing of varying stakeholder perspectives as their biggest challenge in building trust in their business; 43% of executives described it as such, with company culture (41%) running a close second.

And how has the coronavirus pandemic changed the nature of trust in business? According to the PwC survey, it’s actually had the effect of increasing employee trust in their employers, with 80% of workers reporting that they trust their company either the same or more now than they did before the pandemic. That may be confounding to some given the ongoing worker retention crisis known as the “Great Resignation”; indeed, 88% of employers recently told PwC that they are experiencing higher employee turnover than usual.

But as Kande noted, trust and loyalty are two different things, and one does not necessarily translate into the other. What’s more, he says the pandemic’s distancing effect on people and workplaces has eroded many of the bonds that tend to keep people in a job. “Trust doesn’t equal loyalty, and now people do not have the same emotional attachment to the organizations they work for,” he says. “It’s easier to quit now.”

You can check out PwC’s entire Trust in US Business Survey here.

As always, you’ll find the rest of today’s newsletter below. That’s all from me; you’ll be back in Sheryl’s hands tomorrow. Thanks for reading and have a lovely day.

Rey Mashayekhi


Join Fortune on September 28 for its Global Sustainability Forum. The one-day virtual conference will include top-level executives, investors, and decision-makers from across the globe. Best practices in engaging in sustainability transformation and moving “from pledge to practice” will be among the topics. Featured speakers include Michele Buck, chair, president and CEO of The Hershey Company; Jim Fitterling, chairman and CEO of Dow; Jesper Brodin, CEO of Ingka Group; Rich Lesser, CEO of Boston Consulting Group; and Mike Roman, chairman and CEO of 3M. You can apply for the event here.

Big deal

As more corporations recognize the importance of ESG standards and performance—and take measures to implement and improve their environmental, social, and governance policies—we’re seeing more research depicting just how and why some companies are having greater success than others at living up to those standards.

The latest data comes from S&P Global Market Intelligence, which says it has identified one key driver of how well a company does on the ESG front. According to a new study, companies with “strong board networks”—that is, those with directors who serve on more than one corporate board and are “well-connected”—have better ESG outcomes than those with “weak” board networks.

Among those outcomes, S&P says firms with strong board networks are “more proactive about addressing gender diversity issues” at both the C-suite and board level; they’re twice as likely to have female CEOs, and have a higher percentage of directors who are women. And they also score better on ESG issues such as codes of business conduct (i.e. fewer incidents of bribery and corruption), environmental waste, and labor practices than companies with weaker board networks and less-connected directors.

So what gives? The report concludes that companies with strong board networks likely have access to information and practices “that may not be available to firms with weak board networks.” In turn, well-connected directors can “transfer strategies or ideas that were successful in improving ESG outcomes from one board to another”—what S&P calls a “knowledge transfer” that benefits those directors’ companies.

Going deeper

In yesterday’s newsletter, we mentioned how global CFOs on a special United Nations task force have collectively pledged more than $500 billion toward the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals—a commitment that also includes linking nearly half of their companies’ corporate financing to sustainability performance and issuing hundreds of billions of dollars in “sustainable finance instruments,” like sustainability-linked bonds.

But those CFOs are far from alone. As the Wall Street Journal highlighted on Monday, an ever-growing number of companies are tying the financial terms of their corporate bonds to sustainability targets—such as interest rates that adjust based on whether a company hits a given ESG goal. According to Dealogic data, U.S. companies took out nearly $84 billion in sustainability-linked bonds this year through mid-September—up considerably from only $2.5 billion through the same period in 2020. However, such bonds still comprise a small fraction of overall U.S. corporate loan volume, which stood at $1.7 trillion for the year through mid-September.


Steven Berns has been named COO and CFO at TripleLift, an ad tech company. Berns has previously held CFO roles at Shutterstock, Tribune Media Company, Revlon, and MDC Partners. He will report directly to TripleLift CEO Eric Berry.

Steven Penn has been named CFO and COO at Care Angel, a health care tech company. Penn most recently served as senior vice president of finance, technology, and operations at U.S. Bank, and previously served as senior vice president of operations for innovative research and development at UnitedHealth Group.


“The U.S. has never defaulted. Not once. Doing so would likely precipitate a historic financial crisis that would compound the damage of the continuing public health emergency.”

—Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, writing in a Wall Street Journal op-ed published Sunday that urged Congress to raise the U.S. government’s debt ceiling or risk widespread economic catastrophe.

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