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Striking gaps between consumers’, employees’ and employers’ definitions of “Trust” creates complex challenge for businesses, according to PwC survey

Consumers and employees prioritize a few key trust-building areas, while business executives think trust is much more multifaceted

September 16, 2021 — According to The Complexity of Trust: PwC’s Trust in US Business Survey, business executives, consumers and employees do not agree on the definition of trust. When asked to define trust in business, business leaders say trust is made up of many different elements, including sustainable value chain management, responsible artificial intelligence (AI) and transparency in environmental, social and governance (ESG) reporting. Consumers disagree, and prioritize fewer areas—including holding leadership accountable.

While there were glaring disparities between the three groups’ definition of trust, they did agree on four foundational elements—data protection and cybersecurity, treating employees well, ethical business practices and admitting mistakes (see graph below for full breakdown of business leaders, employees and consumers’ definitions of trust).

Consumers, employees and business leaders agree on foundational elements of trust

Q: When you think about trust, which of the following comes to mind?
Source: PwC’s Trust in US Business Survey, September 16, 2021: base of 1,001 consumers, 873 employees and 503 business executives

When asked what drives trust, consumers’ top choices were accountability, clear communications and admitting mistakes. Data protection—which consumers chose as the number one area defining trust—only came in sixth, demonstrating that trust in theory and trust in practice are not the same. Yet, that does not mean that consumers do not care about their data. On the contrary, they likely consider data protection a basic necessity (see graph below).

What builds trust in business for consumers and employees

Q: In your opinion, which of the following are the most important drivers of trust in a company? (Pick up to 5)
Source: PwC’s Trust in US Business Survey, September 16, 2021: base of 1,001 consumers, including 873 employees

And when it comes to who owns trust, more than half of the business leaders in our survey said that most senior leaders at a company were responsible for trust. But even so, two roles led the pack: 73% of respondents cited the CEO as either responsible or accountable for trust, and 65% said the same for the CFO. Having more roles owning trust can be an advantage because it embeds a trust mindset throughout senior management, and in turn, the entire organization. This can also present a challenge however—having multiple roles in charge of trust in lieu of one centralized owner can also reduce accountability and focus.

“The disconnects in the definition of trust and who owns it presents an opportunity for businesses to better describe how their many priorities collectively build and sustain trust, and how they plan to hold themselves accountable to the commitments they make in the name of trust-building,” said Tim Ryan, PwC's US Chair and Senior Partner. “For business leaders, it is more important than ever to continue to actively listen to their key stakeholders, surround themselves with differing perspectives to keep them up to date on critical topics and continue to act on what they say they’re going to do.”

Despite challenges, businesses who back words with action are most successful in building trust

Business leaders cite varying stakeholder expectations as the top challenge (43%) in building company trust, with the second top challenge being the business’s own company culture (41%). This is where leaders are predominantly spending their time, with the overwhelming majority of employers (75%) saying they are focused on their employees to build trust in their company.

However, the organizations who are most successful at building trust are the ones who prioritize and understand the expectations of all of their stakeholders and who back their words with action. For example, over the last year and a half, energy, utilities and mining, as well as consumer markets companies—including essential businesses like retail, hospitality and leisure, transportation and logistics—built the most trust, with 80% of consumers saying their trust in those companies stayed the same or grew during the pandemic, followed by industrial products (79%) and healthcare (77%). 

Business leaders’ actions on trust often don’t match what they say is important—and don’t address consumer priorities

Business leaders ranked clear communications as the most important priority (72%) in building trust with stakeholders, including consumers and employees, but only 64% of business leaders have implemented these efforts. Yet consumers’ top trust driver is accountability, whereas only 56% of business leaders deem it “extremely important,” and only 46% say that their companies have implemented it. And when it comes to ESG, 45% of business leaders have implemented transparent ESG reporting—but only 19% of consumers list it as a top-5 driver of trust. 

Employee’s trust in their employer does not necessarily translate into loyalty

According to the survey, 80% of employees report trusting their company the same or more now than before the pandemic. Employees cited the highest levels of trust in their direct managers, co-workers and companies (77%) compared to only 67% for their company’s board and 59% for other companies in their industry. Considering 88% of employers saying they are experiencing higher turnover than normal, however, employee trust in their employers does not necessarily translate into loyalty. 

You can read through ‘The Complexity of Trust: PwC’s Trust in US Business Survey’ in full here. And follow these links for more information on PwC US’s Trust Solutions and Consulting Solutions.


In August 2021, PwC conducted a survey of 503 business executives and 1,001 consumers in the United States. Of the latter, 873 work for companies and are referred to as “employees,” while the remaining 128 are self-employed and are included together with employees as “consumers.” Our goal was to gain insights into concepts of trust in business from the consumer, employee, and executive perspectives and to determine how trust levels have been shifted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

About PwC

PwC is a passionate community of solvers coming together in unexpected ways. Our purpose—to build trust in society and solve important problems—is at the core of everything we do. It guides how we serve our clients, our people and the world. To help our clients build trust and deliver sustained outcomes, PwC provides professional services across two segments: Trust Solutions and Consulting Solutions. Within these segments we bring a range of capabilities to help organizations solve faster, solve more and realize more value. Our dedicated real estate professionals help clients with capabilities ranging from cloud and digital, deals, ESG, cybersecurity and privacy, governance/boards, risk, transformation, tax services and much more. Across our global network of more than 295,000 people in 156 countries, we are committed to advancing quality in everything we do.

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Molly Molendyke

Molly Molendyke

CEO Survey, Chairman Communications, US Executive Leadership Communications, PwC US

Tel: +1 (646) 629 7345

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