With all the work we do at JUST Capital powered by – and grounded in – the priorities of the public, we crafted new public opinion research to better understand Americans’ perspective on emergent polarizing conversations. As part of our ongoing efforts to track views on the role of business in society, our latest research asked more than 40 focus group participants to consider if and how companies should align with the principles of stakeholder capitalism, as the dialogue on “woke” companies and ESG investing continues to intensify.
In December 2022, JUST Capital and polling partner The Harris Poll, in collaboration with Omidyar Network and The Ford Foundation, embarked on a qualitative research effort wherein we held eight small group discussions, broken into Republican, Democrat, Independent, and young Americans (ages 18-24) to ensure diversity of voices across key demographics.
Explore five key takeaways from our findings below, and for more information on our process, see the methodology section at the end of this article.
1. With great power comes great responsibility.
All our focus group participants agreed that America’s largest companies have outsize influence – both positive and negative – on society, and that this influence is felt particularly among their workers, their customers, and the communities where they operate. While respondents acknowledge that companies are in business to make money and have important obligations to shareholders, they also believe that companies should be “good corporate citizens” and do their best to make a positive impact on society.
This confirms what we’ve heard over seven years of survey research – in both quantitative surveys and qualitative discussions. Americans perceive that the business operations of large U.S. corporations have downstream consequences for all of a company’s stakeholders, especially its workers.
Year after year, we’ve heard from the public that workers should represent a company’s top priority – and in particular, that paying a fair, living wage is critically important to just business. Americans would like to see corporations accept that they have a greater responsibility to do good for all, and agree that providing fair compensation and good treatment of their workforces must be at the forefront of that effort.
2. There is trust. But only with action.
In recent years, Edelman’s Trust Barometer has shown that business has become the most trusted institution above government, media, and NGOs. However, when we explored this issue further in our focus groups, we heard notable skepticism around whether companies could be trusted to actually do the right thing by their various stakeholders, such as workers, communities, and customers. Specifically, there was a lot of discussion around companies’ tendency to offer words before deeds, and that any trust must be earned through action that can be seen and experienced.
With backlash mounting from the left and right, a new corporate mantra is emerging: “Say less, do more.” Speaking out for speaking out’s sake rings false when the American people face many concrete challenges – from inequality to climate change to discrimination – today. Respondents say it is most acceptable for companies to speak out about issues that they can closely tie back to the interests of both their business and their stakeholders. And when companies do choose to speak out, they are perceived as most credible in the eyes of the public when their words are backed by clear action, demonstrating that they are “walking the talk.”
The takeaway? Companies should consider all facets of a given issue and be thoughtful about the decision to speak out. Most importantly, corporate leaders must ensure that this decision is supported by action, particularly with regards to the stakeholders that are most impacted. Focus on operations, not the public square. Banners and hashtags do not cut it.
3. Stakeholder Capitalism > Shareholder Primacy
JUST Capital and our partners at Omidyar and Ford set out to take the public’s temperature about the concept of stakeholder capitalism, presenting participants with two operational models of business and asked which model they preferred:
Company A has a “shareholders focus” where it only focuses on serving the interests of its investors or shareholders, with a big focus on profitability and returns.
Company B focuses on serving not just its shareholders, but also its other stakeholders such as employees, customers, communities, and the environment.
Participants overwhelmingly chose the second, stakeholder-focused model as the preferred option. When asked why, some common themes emerged:
- The stakeholder model introduces a virtuous circle, wherein a happier workforce delivers better customer service leading to happier consumers leading to more loyalty and ultimately greater revenue.
- A more sustainable business model is not only good for society, it may result in greater returns over the long term, even if it may cost companies more in the short term.
- This model is ultimately advantageous to both companies and their various stakeholders, with one respondent stating “this new model works for everyone.”
What is more, we heard positive assessments of the stakeholder model across all demographics, including across party lines, with Republican-only and Independent-only groups preferring this model.
“Ideally, the company’s going to make a profit, the employees are going to be happy, the consumers are going to be happy. It’s going to be better for the environment as long as they’re actually doing everything they say.” – Republican respondent
We then asked participants what they would call this business model if they were to talk about it with friends and family, and responses fell into three main themes:
- People-focused: Collective, Unified, Human-centric, “People before profit.”
- Interconnected: Well Rounded; Mutual; Holistic.
- Benefiting all: “Building an economy that works for all Americans.”
4. Whatever we call ESG, it’s a better way of investing.
When polled for awareness, only a few participants said they had heard of the term “ESG.” We then asked whether they thought considering non-financial metrics made sense from an investment perspective. Many on both sides of the aisle find it part-and-parcel of a sound investment strategy:
“How can [considering these factors] be bad? It’s more information about a company.” – Independent respondent
“Turnover rate in a company is going to cost money over time, [an investor would] want to know that.” – Retail Investors respondent
We also asked respondents to consider whether state legislators should prohibit financial service providers from considering environmental factors in state retirement funds, an issue that has been debated at the state and federal levels in recent years. Proponents of this legislation suggest that such consideration is overly political and will result in lower shareholder gains, but we found that most respondents, regardless of political affiliation, prefer to let financial service providers use their expertise to make decisions when it comes to what factors to evaluate and where to make investments.
“I think if you hire an investment firm, then you should just let them manage the money as they best see fit and not put restrictions and conditions on what they do.” – Republican
5. Investing in workers cuts through the noise and demonstrates leadership.
Finally, there is one critical theme that we found to be consistent across every group, as well as in our ongoing survey research: Across the board, Americans see investing in workers as the most powerful and authentic way companies can demonstrate their commitment to people, communities, and society. In every group, worker issues were top-mentioned as a way to positively impact society, including by increasing pay, as well as by providing benefits packages, time off and mental health benefits.
One respondent in the Republican group put it succinctly: “Taking care of employees is the first and most meaningful thing companies can do” to affect positive change.
The message could not be clearer as companies look to win the hearts and minds of their stakeholders in the months ahead. With inflation and cost of living the two most referenced issues on the minds of respondents today, corporate leaders should consider and articulate what actions they are taking to support their workers as they navigate today’s uncertain economic headwinds. Respondents rallied around the message that now is the time to invest in the American worker.
In addition to inflation and cost of living, divisiveness was the third most important issue on respondents’ minds. But with the American public in clear, consistent agreement that workers should be at the top priority for companies, alignment is not far from our reach. The more that corporate leaders can focus their actions and communications on areas that unite Americans – from creating U.S. jobs with strong wages to providing good benefits and safe workplaces to ensuring opportunities for upward mobility – the more success they will have in building trust and leading through today’s challenging times.
This survey was conducted within the United States by The Harris Poll on behalf of JUST Capital in collaboration with Omidyar Network and The Ford Foundation. The Harris Poll conducted eight (8) small focus groups consisting of 6 U.S. adults (age 18 or older) between December 13 and December 15, 2022. Each group lasted 90 minutes.
The eight groups were organized by demographic: two (2) groups each of respondents that self-identify as Republican or Independent, one (1) group of respondents that self-identify as Democrat, two (2) groups of adults age 18-24, and one (1) group of retail investors with $50,000 or more in investable assets. Participants were recruited with attention to attaining a mix of age, gender, education, race/Hispanic ethnicity, Census Division and household income in groups. Given that this is qualitative research, findings are directional in nature and not statistically representative and therefore do not represent the views of the entire U.S. adult general population. For more information, please contact [firstname.lastname@example.org].
The Harris Poll is one of the longest running surveys in the U.S. tracking public opinion, motivations and social sentiment since 1963 that is now part of Harris Insights & Analytics, a global consulting and market research firm that delivers social intelligence for transformational times. We work with clients in three primary areas; building twenty-first-century corporate reputation, crafting brand strategy and performance tracking, and earning organic media through public relations research. Our mission is to provide insights and advisory to help leaders make the best decisions possible. To learn more, please visit www.theharrispoll.com.