What Do You Mean, “Trust Me!”?

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You’ve almost certainly heard and have probably said it: “Trust me!” But are others saying or hearing what you think it means?

Rolls Royce declares, “Trusted to deliver excellence”. Then there was Crisco: “Cooks who know trust Crisco.” But, can you, as a company, recruiter, employee or as just you make the same claim—and is it enough, just to be trusted? After all, “trusted” does not equal “trustworthy”.

Read those slogans again: Is there any explicit claim to Cisco’s being proved, as opposed to merely suggested, to be trustworthy? [“Cooks who know Crisco, trust Crisco” doesn’t mean “Cooks who know Crisco, know they can trust Crisco.”]

It’s always possible for trust to be misplaced—despite whatever reassurances slogans attempt to convey or customers think they are getting from them. The difference between “trusted” and “trustworthy” is summed up in “And to think I trusted you!” [for example, deservedly addressed to all those white-smocked “doctors” who promoted smoking, as well as smocking, in the early days of TV advertising].

The second, subtler cautionary consideration is that it is quite possible to be trustworthy in one sense, but not in another, as I will argue below. The correlative observation is that it may be fine to trust in one sense, but not in another, again, a point to be argued below.

This is because “trust X” [where X is a person or organization, as opposed to a product, tool, etc.] has at least the following senses. When you tell or hear from others that X can be trusted, which of these do you mean, think they mean or are in a position to guarantee?

1. Expect no intentional harm from X: Strangely, although this is what people often really seem to mean when they say “I trust you”, no dictionary definition I’ve found makes this explicit. It is precisely what a patient agreeing to “above all do no harm” open-heart surgery or a woman accepting a ride from a stranger in a bar minimally means and expects.

It is also what most people mean, as a minimum, when talking about anything else very important, e.g., “trust me with this deal!!”

However, although it may be fine to trust others in the sense of expecting them not to intentionally do harm, trusting them in other senses may be problematic, if not very costly. Likewise, interpreting “Trust me!”, in a sense other than intended or additionally warranted, may get you into trouble.

For example, if management says, “When it comes to our safety equipment and policies, you can trust us”, are they saying more than that they will not knowingly do harm—as opposed to not allow harm to be done, knowingly or otherwise?

Does their assurance mean they are offering a guarantee, or that they can be trusted to make “best efforts”, “good efforts” or trusted to think that they are?

In any case, should trust ever be a matter of black-and-white, yes-no commitment, rather than a matter of degree, proportional to the evidence of trustworthiness—as opposed to “trust eagerness”? If the latter, how is it possible to be sure that the degree of trust requested corresponds to that granted, especially when “Yes, I will” is the only reply?

2. Believe X is sincere: “Trust me when I tell you….” encapsulates this interpretation as an equivalent of “You’ve got to believe me!” The problem with this is that is it easily misinterpreted, misrepresented and manipulated.

Consider a recruiter who says, “Trust me when I tell you that the company is fully committed to preventing harassment in the workplace.” Does that mean that the candidate is being asked to believe that the company is in fact fully committed, or only that the recruiter sincerely believes that?

“Trust me when I tell you….” Is deliciously and sometimes conveniently ambiguous in this way, even when not in the context of a triangulated, 3-party promise, such as recruiter-candidate-company.

For example, if a candidate, speaking of himself, says, “Trust me when I tell you that I’m completely honest”, [s]he, if sincere, is at most guaranteeing that [s]he or others believe it, not that it is in fact true.

Similarly, “believing X is telling the truth” is ambiguous, as between “believing X is telling what he believes to be the truth” vs. “believing X is telling what he knows to be the truth” vs. “believing X is telling what happens to be the truth, even if he doesn’t know it”.

When trusting X, be clear exactly which of these you are willing to believe, given that they are very different from each other.

3. Believe X is telling the truth:  Second only to the “expect no harm from X” interpretation or standard of trust, “believe X is telling the truth” counts most, as a minimum expectation or offer of trust and as the second of the two key necessary conditions for deserving trust.

However, these are not sufficient for deserving or asking for “full trust”, as this analysis will show. One problem with “Trust me!” is that it is ambiguous in another way, as between trusting X’s statements and trusting X’s actions in connection with belief in truth-telling.

If a recruiter asks a candidate to trust him, it may be interpreted more broadly or narrowly than intended—either as including both statement-trust and action-trust, or only one of these two. The recruiter may merely want the candidate to believe that what [s]he is hearing is indeed the truth, without making any promises about what actions will or won’t be taken on the candidate’s behalf.

The only case in which these are the same is that in which the statements are indeed promises of action. But to infer reliability of actions from truth of statements about other things is to infer too much and to trust too broadly.

So, a recruiter who is to be trusted in these minimal senses, viz.,  is believed to be telling what [s]he  knows, or at least believes to be the truth and is believed will intentionally do no harm, isn’t necessarily to be trusted regarding all actions [s]he or the employer will take or refrain from in connection with the candidate.

4. Believe X will try to perform as promised: Never assume that “Trust me!” means a performance guarantee. At best, on this interpretation, it means only a promise of effort, not a promise of success. Your neighbor says, “We’ve got termites too. But I really trust the exterminator we’ve hired. I can give you his card.” She may mean only that she believes he will try, probably try his best, to deal with the termites.

However, you may think she believes the exterminator will succeed. Your concepts of trust and associated expectations are different, with you at greater risk of disappointment if the exterminator fails.

5. Believe X will succeed: One notch higher on the trust scale, believing someone will succeed in meeting your expectations requires more evidence, if it is to be warranted. If the neighbor meant she trusted the exterminator to succeed, she will have gone farther out on an evidential limb in recommending him.

Hence, when a lot is at stake, always make sure that “You can trust me!” means “You can be sure I will succeed on your behalf”, rather than “You can be sure I will try hard and maybe even my best!”

6. Believe X is dependable/reliable: Depending on others is not the same thing as relying on them. Every child that’s unfortunately a legal dependent of an unreliable deadbeat dad knows that, unless “rely on” designates need regardless of results . But when it comes to trust, that distinction seems to disappear, because “dependable” confirms more than “is depended upon”.

So when others say, “Trust me!” in this sense, we are being asked to believe their character, circumstances, capability, resources and behavior are dependable/reliable—basically that they will get things done as expected, even when those things are not explicitly promised.

Hence, in this form, the trusting party is depending less on the word of the trusted than on his or her character, capabilities, circumstances and resources.

The question is whether or not this is a riskier form of trust sought or granted, given that much more is involved and at stake than veracity and sincerity. This kind of reliability-trust is only as warranted as the character, capability, resources, circumstances—such as weather, communications technology or funding, and behavior are dependable.

Also, note how someone can be trustworthy in this sense, but not in sense #3—worthy of the belief that [s]he is telling the truth. The work crew that always whines about and exaggerates the difficulty of the job still always gets it done and done well illustrates this difference.  You can’t trust what they say, but can bet on what they’ll do.

This distinction is another that can cause trouble: An insurance salesman may be truth-trustworthy, but, once you file a claim, turn out to be not reliability-trustworthy, through no fault of his own, as the claims adjusters go to work [on you].

7. Allow with confidence: An anxious dad nonetheless allows his 15-year-old daughter to go to an unchaperoned overnight party, because he “trusts” her, in this sense of “allowance with confidence”.  This means she has been granted only a conditional-expectation-based-privilege, not a right or absolute authorization.

Interpreted this way, trust can come into some serious play when there is a workplace dispute about authority and responsibility.

After a project falls apart, the manager, taking heat from above and looking for a scapegoat, hammers the team leader: “I trusted you to get this done my way, but you went ahead and made changes without my permission!”

The stunned team leader sincerely replies, “But you entrusted this project to me!” That neatly summarizes a key difference between allowance/responsibility-trust and right/authorization-trust, craftily exploited by the manager through the ambiguity of “I trusted you to get this done!”


If you’ve hung in throughout this analysis, maybe you think that trust can’t be this complicated, multifaceted and susceptible to such misperception and manipulation.  But …

…Trust me, it is.

Read more in Recruiting

Michael Moffa, writer for Recruiter.com, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).