The Processes and Politics of Trust at Work

Author: ORCID icon
Mosseri, Sarah, Sociology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Pugh, Allison, AS-Sociology, University of Virginia

Americans report high levels of interpersonal trust at work despite a documented proclivity toward distrust outside the workplace. Why do people trust coworkers and employers, particularly given widespread job insecurity, labor market inequality and workplace discrimination and harassment? This dissertation draws on fourteen months of ethnographic workplace observations and 122 in-depth interviews with workers and managers to examine the paradoxical case of trust at work. Contending that a prolonged, cross-organizational managerial discourse orients people toward trust at work, I reveal how people “do” trust – and to what end – in four distinct service-sector environments: a restaurant, a marketing firm, a high-tech consulting start-up and the NYC ride-hail circuit. Workplace actors, I find, creatively mix and match disparate symbols to construct meanings of trust that align with their lived realities – a process that enables the expression of trust across a wide range of work relationships and situations. Findings further demonstrate how the ability to trust and be trusted at work conveys moral worth, making successful performances of trust a highly valued accomplishment within the workplace. Through processes of trust, people access workplace resources and rewards, establish social connections and inject meaning and purpose into their work. These dynamics of trust, however, also motivate people to embrace uncertainty, rationalize and reframe incivility and exert unrequited effort while drawing attention away from the profound vulnerabilities and inequities that define modern work arrangements. Moreover, as the accomplishment of trust is moderated by existing workplace “inequality regimes” and ingrained cultural beliefs about gender, race and ethnicity, women and people of color must work harder to express and receive trust. Interestingly, even though these workplace groups are less likely to enjoy the benefits of trust at work, their extended efforts lead them to become more heavily invested than white men in relations of trust, disproportionately exposing them to the risk of malfeasance and the burden of obligation such relationships can entail. I conclude that trust has emerged, within a context of deinstitutionalization, as a powerful, informal structure organizing and stratifying contemporary work.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
workplace trust, labor process, intersectionality
Sponsoring Agency:
National Science Foundation Division of Social and Economic SciencesBankard Fund for Political Economy
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