Americans Don't Trust Business--But We Love Tech Companies

Last Updated Jan 29, 2011 1:12 PM EST

Americans' trust in business may be sinking back down to levels last seen during the financial crisis, according to a recent study, but what's really interesting is exactly where that trust is maintaining the most traction. (And how the U.S. compares with other countries.)

U.S. CEOs, presumably of the non-Hayward variety, are recovering a bit. Carmakers, post-bankruptcy, in the EV era, are doing better. Bankers? Try again next year.


It's no mystery what sent these numbers plunging. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, says CEO Richard Edelman, the decline makes sense, given the systemic impact of corporate and government crises. There's an across-the-board demand on companies to be more socially conscious -- but less in the U.S. than abroad. And there are wildly different perceptions of trustworthiness across industries.

Non-evil tech gets highest marks

  • The technology industry is firmly in first place, with 81% of respondents saying they trust tech companies to do the right thing. That may be the Google factor, or love of all things i.
  • The automotive industry has rebounded smartly since the bailouts (and Toyota brakes), with 69% of respondents saying automotive companies are trustworthy. In the U.S., 49% said the auto sector was trustworthy, compared with 32% two years ago. Edelman President Gary Grates notes that in the U.S., one in five jobs is still related to the automotive industry.
  • The financial services sector has recuperated somewhat since 2008, at least as far as Wall Street and the bonus pool are concerned. Not surprisingly, bankers are still in the doghouse as far as the public is concerned. Insurance, banks, and financial services took the bottom three slots in the ranking worldwide, with 52%, 51%, and 50%, respectively, trusting them to do the right thing. In the U.S., banks got only a 25% rating, down from 71% in 2008.
In land of brave, people (just barely) trump profits

This year Edelman added a new question to the survey, asking how the public felt about the Milton Friedman view that the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits. In the United Arab Emirates, 84% of respondents agreed with this statement, but in the U.S., just over half -- 56% -- agreed. That's still much higher than China, Brazil, Germany or Italy, where fewer than 40% of respondents went with Friedman.

When asked more specifically about a profits-trump-all mentality, a majority of respondents said business should align its interests with society's interests, even if it means sacrificing immediate shareholder value.

  • Germans were most enthusiastic about this statement, with 91% agreeing.
  • Even in the U.S., 85% agreed.
  • The lowest share--58%--came from the United Arab Emirates.
And respondents clearly put more trust in companies that produce high quality goods and services and treat employees fairly. Only 39% said that providing good financial returns to investors was a sign of a trustworthy company. Some 51% said they trusted CEOs, up from 31% in 2009.

Lulu, as he leaves, gets most love, but Merkel gains
Globally, the share of people who said they trusted government to do the right thing rose five percentage points, to 52%. But those numbers are may be skewed by respondents in just a few countries who are a lot happier than they were in the 2010 report.

  • In Brazil, 81% of respondents trusted their government to do the right thing, up from 62% the year before
  • Some 52% of Germans said they trusted their government, up from 40%
  • In France, 48% said they trusted the government, up from 36%
The trust barometer queries 5,075 people in 23 countries. They're college educated and in the top 25% of income for their age group.

Do you think people in the U.S. are justified in being more skeptical than those in other parts of the world? How much do you trust business, or government, to do the right thing?

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Photo courtesy of flickr user umpcportal.
Kimberly Weisul is a freelance writer and editor. Follow her at www.twitter.com/weisul.
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    Kimberly Weisul is the co-founder of One Thing New, the free email newsletter for smart, busy women. She was previously Senior Editor at BusinessWeek, responsible for all coverage of entrepreneurship and for launching BusinessWeek SmallBiz, a bimonthly magazine. She is also a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant.