Just over a year ago, I hosted a meeting for my entire office about #MeToo and gender equality in the workplace alongside our Canadian CEO, Lisa Kimmel, and our head of HR. As a communications firm, the majority of our employees are women, who have been or could be impacted by the issues driving this important movement. The goal of this meeting was to bring this discussion into the light so we could work through it together. There was no agenda. No clear action items expected. The purpose was simple: to be honest and vulnerable in sharing perspectives, experiences and anxieties related to working together as men and women in a post-#MeToo world.

We discussed behaviours that underscore our company’s values. We reflected on interactions with clients – inside and outside the office. We talked about mentorship. But in my opinion, one of the most valuable takeaways was the collective trust that we deepened as colleagues through this forum. It provided an opportunity for our Edelman team – women and men, at all stages of their careers, to articulate their real and sometimes personal reflections in a safe and supportive setting.

The #MeToo movement can obviously be an area of great sensitivity, and our discussion that day led to some strong emotions among colleagues.Which is why I’ve come to appreciate that leading conversations on hot button issues with employees is important, even if it’s unpredictable and emotive. You can’t always plan for what will surface and need to be comfortable with that, and even aim to embrace it.

This is a relatively new phenomenon – the expectation that employers will act as facilitators of discussions, as trusted guides on controversial issues that impact employees but can reach beyond the traditional confines of the business sphere.

This was borne out in this year’s Edelman Trust Barometer. Some 54 per cent of Canadians agreed that they look to their employer to be a trustworthy source of information about social issues and other important topics on which there is not general agreement. This demonstrates businesses have an opportunity, even an obligation, to provide data and leadership, and to create a forum for informed, balanced conversations among their employees.

There is a growing trust inequality taking place in Canada and these conversations can play an important role in our broader community. The same Edelman study found a 20-point gap in trust in institutions – government, NGOs, business and media – between the Canadian “informed public” (higher educated, top quartile earners who regularly consume or engage with news) and “mass population”. This trust inequality gap is the second highest among the countries surveyed, topped only by the UK at 24 points. By comparison, the US trust gap is 11 points.

This is a worrying indication, suggesting that Canadians are experiencing a world that feels out of balance, in which your ability to rely on institutions seems to differ greatly depending on your level of income and education. And with lower trust in all institutions than the informed public, including media, where will the mass population turn for credible information?

Their employer is one likely source, as “my employer” is highly trusted by Canadians across the board (77 per cent of the mass population and 88 per cent of the informed public). It’s a position of privilege and responsibility that employers cannot afford to ignore. Canadians are expecting more from businesses than ever before. Seventy-nine per cent of Canadians say that CEOs should take the lead on change rather than waiting for government to impose it, up 11 points from 2018. These expectations extend to their own employers, with a majority of Canadian employees agreeing that it’s critically important for their own CEOs to respond to challenging times.

These are difficult times for many Canadians. With recent events such as the impending GM plant closure in Oshawa and the SNC-Lavalin scandal, employees at companies large and small are looking to make sense of controversial and confusing issues affecting their future livelihood. This is an opportunity for employers to provide assurances through meaningful conversations in a safe context. And it’s worth doing so, since the evidence noted above shows it can help build internal trust, which delivers tangible benefits including increased advocacy, loyalty, commitment and engagement. In our experience, even those troubled by the #MeToo forum felt they could raise concerns with management because of the trust that’s been established through an open and inclusive culture.

We have a powerful platform as trusted employers. By facilitating informed dialogue on issues that matter to our employees we are inviting exposure and understanding to others’ views of the world. As businesses, the legitimate merits of fortifying employee trust and engagement in this way can’t be ignored. Simply put, it’s the right thing to do.

Scott Evans is General Manager of Edelman Toronto.