In business, we are all well-versed with the phrase “the customer always comes first”.

The 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer tells a different story.

The British people believe that the greatest obligation of business today isn’t about serving customers – it’s about treating employees well.

No one is suggesting, of course, that the customer doesn’t matter. Our latest research, out today, still shows that nearly half of us are concerned with how companies treat their customers. It’s just that how they treat employees appears to matter more.

Set against an increasingly fraught and rapidly changing world order, this year’s findings reveal a clear role for employers.

Amid fears about economic stability, globalisation, and automation, trust in traditional institutions is eroding.

There is a continued sense that the system is not working for people, an overwhelming feeling that something needs to change. And increasingly we are looking towards our employers to help provide that change.

People’s trust has gradually been shifting from a top-down orientation to a horizontal one, whereby we are more likely to trust peers or experts than power elites. Now, this has gone a step further – people are turning to that which is close, local, and personal.

According to the barometer, trust in an individual’s employer ranks higher than trust in any other institution in the UK – and 50 per cent look to them to help understand the changing political climate and provide clarity on societal issues.

UK employees also expect their chief executives to respond during difficult times, not just around business challenges, but during major political events and national crises.

Why? Primarily because the employee-employer relationship is tangible, personal, and operates in a day-to-day environment that people understand. “Local” and “close” are within our control – we can choose to stay or leave our jobs, and influence the relationship directly. In return, our employer can help us navigate the complexity of today’s world.

Where governments are increasingly perceived to be failing, incompetent or out-of-touch, people are turning to business to take action. The vast majority – 79 per cent – of us now expect chief executives to lead change rather than wait for the government to impose it. Progress around issues like equal pay, diversity and inclusion, discrimination, and skills training is increasingly being asked of or even demanded of business leaders.

Employees have high expectations. Whereas once wage and career growth were the top considerations, today that increasingly just isn’t enough. Having a voice and doing work that has meaningful societal impact have been added to the list of prospective employer expectations – and are seen to be of comparable importance.

That trust comes with responsibilities – and business cannot rest on its laurels. Just over half of Brits think that the way that business works today is not good for society, and when asked why, placing profit above people came top – a sharp reminder that trust can be lost, just as easily as it is gained.

The enhanced employee-employer dynamic is essential for successful corporate strategy, and it requires the framing of a new contract.

This means a willingness to rebalance, shifting from a top-down control structure to one that emphasises employee empowerment.

In a world where employees have the freedom to choose their workplace – and remember that employment is now at a record high, with more vacancies than there are candidates to fill them – they expect employers to provide purposeful work, strong values, and a positive culture.

This is the key if businesses want to maintain this newfound trust. Employees want the opportunity to influence and shape decisions within their companies, and they want their bosses to lead from the front. Any business hoping for success in 2019 and beyond must put its employees first.

A version of this post first appeared on City A.M.