The headline got my attention: "Porn, Wine and Kazoos on IRS Worker Charge Cards." I couldn't resist clicking on an article that would quickly became a passed along and often quoted sound bite.

However, buried half-way down the page, the article noted that only two employees out of 90,000 using government charge cards had porn purchases. That grabbing headline compared to the reality of the actual number made me curious about the rest. How much of the government-employee portrait headline was hype? A lot.

What the Treasury Department's watchdog report actually found was, "IRS workers on the whole stick to the rules when they use government credit cards." Of course, that doesn't make a good sound bite. The report "indentified improprieties in only about two-tenths of 1 percent of transactions" in two years worth of IRS employee credit card transactions.

So when over 98% of employees consistently show trustworthy behavior, it's okay to shout news about a handful who don't? Really? Where's the headline that reads "Report Finds Rules Followed in Nearly All 273,000 IRS Employee Credit Card Transactions." Of course, that wouldn't be sexy or intriguing, or get lots of clicks.

While those who did violate or abuse the rules should face scrutiny, perpetuating the current "gotcha" culture - the twenty-first century equivalent of a witch-hunt - impacts millions of people's perceptions that government employees can't be trust, when in fact, the reverse is true.

What about where you work? What myths are perpetuated there?

If you answer yes to any of these questions, you may unknowingly be contributing to the growing problem of workplace distrust:

  • Do you look first for what people are doing wrong, instead of what's going right?
  • Do you work in a gotcha-culture, where finger pointing and blaming is the norm?
  • Are your practices, policies, and procedures geared toward the two percent of employees who aren't trustworthy instead of the 98% who are?
  • Are you passing along the workplace equivalent sound bites about "those problem" employees, instead of the great stories about trustworthy staff?
  • Do you long for the "good old days" when top-down approaches prevailed?

Workplace trust is at an historic low. So is trust in government. Adding fuel to an already growing fire by highlighting the errors of a few or managing to the disruptive exceptions may create interesting conversations, but it's not the way to rebuild the trust that's broken. That starts with an honest understanding of what is true.

More about trust at work:

15 Trust Building Communication Practices

Reality Check: Do You Know the Impact of Trust?

In the New Workplace - Trust Begets Trust

• Download "Operating with Trust," a complimentary chapter from my book, The Titleless Leader

You are reading

Trust: The New Workplace Currency

Words Kill Trust at Work, Too!

7 ways casual speak fuels distrust at work

Why Don't We Trust Each Other More?

5 reasons trust languishes between us at work

What Does Trust "Look Like" at Work?

A leader's quiz about trust.