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In Business We Trust

March 1, 2021
People tend to trust businesses, especially their own employers. That brings a lot of opportunity, but also a lot of responsibility.

A twist on an old joke:

A politician, a news reporter and a businessman all die at the same time and are greeted by St. Peter, who tells them, “Welcome to Heaven, gentlemen. It is the custom here to grant every newcomer one wish.”

Glaring at the reporter, the politician says, “I wish the media would be distrusted forever as a source of information!”

Glaring back, the reporter says, “Oh yeah? Well, I wish the same for politicians and the government!”

St. Peter then turns to the businessman and says, “And what do you wish for, sir?”

The businessman replies: “Well, as long as you’ve granted these guys their wishes, I wouldn’t mind a cup of coffee.”

Apparently everyone got their wish. When it comes to getting the straight dope, business is trusted above government, the media, and even non-governmental organizations, with 54% of respondents saying they see it as a good source of information, according to a survey by public relations firm Edelman reported in the Wall Street Journal. People hold their own employers in even higher esteem, with almost three-quarters saying they trust them for accurate info.

This is great news for business in general and the food business in particular. Business is often at loggerheads with both government and the media; having higher credibility than them is a potent weapon in the business arsenal.

But to be sustained, trustworthiness has to be used in a positive way, not just as a weapon. And the pandemic has given the industry, especially the meat & poultry industry, an opportunity to do just that.

As COVID vaccines become steadily more available, some food companies are taking the lead in getting it into their workers’ arms. They’ve advocated, mostly successfully, for workers to get a high priority for vaccination. Some, like Smithfield Foods, have offered to store doses of the vaccine on site. Foster Farms even instituted an on-site vaccination program to cover all the employees, about a thousand of them, at its plant in Fresno, Calif. Tyson Foods is doing vaccinations at a facility in Wilkesboro, N.C.

These companies have an uphill battle, and not just in terms of getting enough vaccine. Thanks to the oceans of misinformation now available with the click of a mouse, a dismayingly large proportion of Americans distrust the COVID vaccine, or distrust vaccines in general, enough to avoid taking them.

A quarter of New York State residents said in a survey that they don’t plan to get vaccinated. A disproportionate number of these refusers are Black and Latino. Those two groups are, of course, heavily represented in food processing – especially in the meat and poultry processing plants that have seen so many COVID outbreaks.

Some businesses are actually offering employees bonuses to get vaccinated, like Pilgrim’s Pride and JBS, whose employees can count on an extra $100. But not every company is willing or able to incentivize their employees to stay healthy. That’s where trust of business comes in.

Employers, both within and outside the food and beverage industry, are trying as hard as they can to educate their employees about the virus. They are launching email and social media campaigns, bringing in outside experts for lectures, even keeping an ear out for negative references to the vaccines among staff. Anheuser-Busch even eschewed Super Bowl advertising—for the first time in the game’s history—and is devoting the money to vaccination awareness efforts.

Now, before we get all warm and fuzzy, let’s remember two things:

  1. Getting a workforce vaccinated helps the employer right along with the employees
  2. Trust in business or no, the pandemic engendered a great deal of ill will, if not outright hostility, between some employers and their workforces

If trust in business, and in employers, is to last in any meaningful way, employers must use it in a meaningful way. That means helping employees, especially the vulnerable ones who so often wind up working food plant floors.

Tyson is doing so with Upward Academy, a program that offers instruction in basic life skills to employees. With the assistance of local organizations, more than a thousand Tyson workers at 59 plants are receiving lessons in English as a second language, citizenship, driver education, computer and financial literacy, and other life skills.

Trust is a great thing, but it has to flow both ways. Employers like Tyson are telling their employees that they trust them to grow and improve their lives if given the opportunity. Being trusted gives employers the chance to furnish that opportunity.

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