Can Big Companies Be Trusted?

While a large majority of Americans have favorable attitudes about major companies, many aren’t sure they can trust them. According to the 2015 Public Affairs Pulse survey, only 10 percent say they have a lot of trust and confidence that businesses will behave ethically. And only 43 percent have some trust or confidence in the ethical behavior of big business. Conversely, a substantial share (46%) say they do not have much or any trust and confidence.

Not all corporate employees are viewed the same way, however. The higher up the management hierarchy, the lower the trust rating. Forty-two percent say CEOs of major companies have low levels of honesty and ethics — and only seven percent say they are highly ethical. In contrast, 19 percent think middle managers are dishonest, and only 11 percent say non-management employees have low ethical standards.

Trustworthiness of Different Industries

American opinions about ethics and trust also vary by industry. For the first time since the Pulse survey debuted in 2011, health insurance companies have been replaced by pharmaceutical companies as the least-trusted business sector. Almost half of Americans (47%) say pharmaceutical firms are less trustworthy than other large companies.

Though the reputation of health insurance companies has improved substantially since last year, these firms still find themselves in second place on the least-trustworthy list. Forty-four percent of the public say these businesses are less trustworthy than the average major company.

The reputations of banks and other financial institutions and, in particular, energy companies have also improved since 2014. Last year, 38 percent said energy firms were less trustworthy than average, while this year that number dropped to 31 percent.

The automobile industry’s standing with the American public has recovered somewhat despite several large, recent recalls. Last year, 33 percent of the public found them less trustworthy than average, but in 2015 only 28 percent hold that opinion.

Some business sectors consistently score well for trustworthiness. In the 2015 survey, manufacturing showed enough improvement to tie technology for the industry least likely to be viewed as dishonorable. Technology, meanwhile, experienced some losses among those who rank it as more trustworthy than average. Large retail companies also get good marks, with the same percentage (17%) considering them either less or more trustworthy than average.

How Major Companies Can Earn Trust

Americans may trust some industries more than others, but they agree there are key steps corporations can take if they want to be considered more trustworthy. For example, two-thirds of the public say they would trust a business a lot more if they knew it treated its employees well. Another 21 percent say this would earn a little more trust. Just 12 percent say having this knowledge would make no difference to them. Proper treatment of employees is of particular concern to majorities of women, college graduates and those making at least $30,000 a year.

The public also expects a company to look outside its walls and into the communities it serves. Fifty-four percent say they would trust a corporation a lot more if it made real efforts to help society, and another 28 percent say they would trust the company a little more. People who report being more civically engaged have especially high expectations for corporate community involvement.

Most Americans also return to the fundamentals of business when it comes to trust. Fifty-two percent say that if a major company provides quality products and services, the company would earn a lot more of their trust. Twenty-seven percent would be swayed a little.

Second-hand information from others has less of an impact on earning the public’s trust. If a corporation gets good reviews from family, friends or neighbors, 42 percent say that would earn the company a lot more trust and 31 percent say a little more. Over a quarter (26%) say these good reviews would make no difference to them.

There is a big caveat related to corporate reputation in the data: people who already have an unfavorable opinion of major companies are less likely than others to think well of a firm that takes these positive steps. While 70 percent of those who already like big companies are impressed by firms that treat employees well, only 58 percent of those who don’t favor big companies say they would trust a firm more if it had better regard for employees.

Similarly, 56 percent of business proponents are more likely to trust a company that makes real efforts to help society, but just 52 percent of business opponents would place more trust in such a company.

Table 1: What it Takes to Earn Trust of People with Different Views of Major Companies
Earn a Lot More Trust if a Company… Favorable Opinion of Major Companies Unfavorable Opinion of Major Companies
Treats its employees well 70% 58%
Makes real efforts to help society 56% 52%
Provides quality products and services 57% 39%
Gets good reviews from family or friends 47% 31%

These differences are most pronounced when we examine corporate efforts to earn trust by focusing exclusively on doing their core businesses well. Only 39 percent of big business foes say they would trust a company more if it provides quality products and services, and only 31 percent say it would make a positive difference if the firm has good reviews from family and friends. In other words, companies and entire industries need to go far beyond the basics if they are serious about building long-term trust among both allies and opponents.

The Public Affairs Pulse survey, conducted July 6–20, 2015, by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, is based on telephone interviews with 1,601 adults nationwide.

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