A reflection on trust


A big challenge an organisation has is to convince staff with disability to record the fact that they are a person with disability on the internal diversity data. This data is needed to provide a picture of how well an organisation is in being diverse and inclusive. In NSW, for example, the Premier’s Priority target of more than doubling the present rate of employment for people with disability to 5.6% by 2025 is a goal that should reveal how psychologically safe an organisation is – and how reflective of the NSW community it is.

This is important information for us all to know. But no progress has been made in the almost 3 years since the target was announced.

Not only do HR departments do a terrible job of selling their argument for a staff member with disability to contribute to the diversity data, they do not know how to address the ‘trust gap’ between themselves and staff with disability.

Data is the foundation of the Premier’s Priority. People are translated into numbers so an intellectual process of counting can take place. But the numbers are not translated back into people. This leaves them remote from triggers for empathy and compassion. It’s hard to build trust with somebody who does not feel that they are treated as a person – with real vulnerabilities and fears.

The trust gap

Here’s a hypothetic case. A government agency’s diversity data records 2% of its staff have a disability. Its PMES says:

  • 4% of staff have a disability, and 
  • 6% prefer not to say (PNTS). 

For the sake of argument, let’s say that we can safely add all of the 4%, but only 2/3rds of the 6% (because I am not convinced that all PNTS responses belong to the subject group – but are part of the ‘No’ group).  

That gives us a possible 8% of staff who have a disability – split evenly between those who are prepared to say so on anonymous survey, and those who are not. There is no doubt the actual number is higher – because of those who do not identify as having a disability, despite having one. 

What we can infer from the PMES results and the internal diversity data is that there is a trust gap of 80% (8% being our total and 2% being what is recorded in HR data). That’s huge!

If we pick a hypothetical staff total of 15,000 for the agency that means 300 staff with disability have provided data to HR out of 1,200 staff with disability. That means 900 staff have reasons not to provide that data. That’s 900 people with genuine vulnerabilities and fears – and maybe adverse, and even traumatic, experiences.

What might those reasons be?

There are 3 that have come up in conversations I have with staff with disability.

  1. I didn’t know the information was being sought.
  2. I don’t have faith that what I report will be confidential.
  3. Because of 2, I fear that this information will be given to my manager and it will be held against me, and lead to discrimination and bullying.

The first 2 reasons are down to HR usually being hopeless at marketing. There has to be some benefit to giving information about oneself – the “What’s in it for me?” question. And to ignore the fear by simply, and flatly, affirming that confidentiality is maintained is disrespectful of the grounds for mistrust. This is a ‘Don’t be silly, we really do keep the information confidential.’ rather than a ‘We acknowledge your concern. We are really sorry you feel this way. What can we do to make you feel safe?

A smarter marketing approach can address those 2 issues. Incidentally, I do believe that the data is genuinely confidential.

The 3rd reason is what we can focus on. Now, a lot of people who give the 3rd reason have an invisible disability. They may need a workplace adjustment or accommodation, but they will not ask for it because they fear that doing so will lead to discrimination or bullying. An example may be a staff member with a psychological health condition who fears that saying they have such a condition will lead to being subject to performance assessments, and revelation of their condition will render them vulnerable to bullying. This isn’t hypothetical. This is what happens more often than is fully appreciated, and it’s in organisational folklore. It’s a real problem.

The 3rd reason

The 2021 NSW State of the Sector report says that over 24% of staff with disability reported being bullied in the preceding 12 months. The 2021 sector wide PMES report showed that grievance handling had the lowest approval rating at 46%. We know not all staff with disability will submit a grievance. Those who do often regret doing so.

We can infer that the greater majority of the 1200 staff with disability in our hypothetical agency have visible disabilities. Around 280 may have been bullied. Let’s imagine only 50 lodge complaints and only half were okay with the outcome. That’s 25 who were not. In an agency of 15,000 staff that’s 0.166%.  That’s a very small number – but one made up of actual human beings. This is often forgotten when some agencies talk about needing to do better. There’s a lot of effort required for a very small number of people – and maybe that means it is seen as less important, because the resources can be put into other things involving more people. 

But then, there’s the Pareto Principle. You might know better as the 80:20 rule (it should be called the 20:80 rule in my view, but it sounds better the other way round). For example, in bullying research, it has been shown that 20% of managers are responsible for 80% of bullying. 

This means that it can take only one instance of witnessing (or hearing about) bullying against a person with a visible disability to convince others, whose disability is invisible, to keep quiet. Worse, when the impact of that bullying is known (impact on psychological wellbeing, impact on efforts to make a formal complaint which fail, impact on work performance, engagement, and unplanned absences) the ‘fear of disclosure’ becomes a very real thing. The staff member with the invisible disability does not trust the agency. They fear harm.

An agency’s more senior leaders are usually unaware of the conversations their staff have, and the beliefs they form about management integrity. The 2021 NSW PMES sector-wide report shows:

  • Senior leaders have a satisfaction rating of only 59%. That suggests the 41% of staff do not approve. In our 15,000 staff agency that’s around 5,000 actual human beings who are not happy with their senior leaders. That’s a huge number.
  • These senior leaders are responsible for the 3 areas with the least level of satisfaction. And they could act to make those scores far better.
    • grievance handling (46%) 
    • action on the survey (47%) and 
    • recruitment (48%) 

When you consider that managers and senior managers are the most common source of bullying, it is easy to see how the Pareto effect can work. A small number of managers adversely impacting a larger, but still relatively small, number of staff with disability can generate an infection of fear that permeates a workforce. This can destroy trust in the organisation’s leadership.

It doesn’t take a pandemic of bullying to induce a pandemic of fear

Staff with invisible disabilities have a range of clues to tell them it is not safe to say what they need. This will include an assessment of the overall level of psychological safety in their division, business area, or work team. They also will see how staff with visible disabilities are treated.

Staff will always gravitate toward groups where they feel psychologically safest, and such groups share insights, news, and rumours. Even in such groups individuals may not talk about their invisible disability. Staff with visible disabilities are not so constrained. ERGs or DENs are psychologically safe places, usually. Discussion about experiencing psychological injury is not secret and will get out to allies. The Pareto effect ripples out.


We need to remember that numbers and percentages represent real people. A few staff with disability who are psychologically injured by bullying may look good in terms of raw numbers and overall percentages. But the reality of being a member of a ‘diversity’ minority is that these numbers are always low. They always resolve into real people – actual human beings experiencing treatment that is demeaning and damaging. 

Numbers are important to help understand data in a convenient and manageable fashion. But you can’t build trust and psychological safety unless numbers are converted back into people, and empathy and compassion are triggered. 

We turn people into numbers and forget to switch back.

An organisation may pat itself on the back because 98% of staff are not psychologically injured by bullying. It’s like the lower the number, the less the entitlement to safety is acknowledged or worked for. A member of a minority group becomes a remainder in a numbers game – to be discounted; or rounded up. This isn’t what inclusion is about. You put the same effort into the 5% as you would with 50%. When you hit 100% that’s when its time to think you have done a good job.

Building trust and a sense of psychological safety for 100% of staff requires effort. The initial effort to hold bullies accountable in a meaningful way may seem a burden. But its essential. Without it, bullying of the most vulnerable will not stop. And no amount of hand wringing and saying, “We must do better.” will close the trust gap.

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