2020 will be a year that’s talked about for decades to come. And while the “annus horribilis” may be in the rear view mirror, its impact will still be felt through the better part of the coming year.
Over the course of 2020, we regularly surveyed the American public to take their pulse on the most critical issues of the year – from COVID-19 to racial inequity to the preservation of our democracy – and to learn what role they believe companies and corporate leaders must play in addressing those issues and supporting their stakeholders in the process. Our findings informed the focus of our research and initiatives throughout the year and provided the foundation by which we assessed corporate America in our 2021 Rankings of America’s Most JUST Companies.
We’ve gathered some of these key findings below to provide not just an archive of the public’s views during this unprecedented year, but also a blueprint for corporate action in the year to come – one that is sure to be formative for stakeholder capitalism in America.
An Assessment of Stakeholder Capitalism During the Pandemic
In a year roiled by so many challenges, one of the fall-outs is that Americans believe the pandemic has exposed underlying structural problems in our society. Our June 2020 report entitled “The Great Reset” uncovers this and myriad other insights, including the fact that a strong plurality of the public believes that we need a more evolved form of capitalism that will:
- Ensure the greater good of society (56%);
- Produce the kind of society we want for the next generation (51%); and
- Work for the average American (54%).
Findings from our Annual Survey reinforce these beliefs, and suggest that there is more work corporate America must do to support its stakeholders, specifically:
It’s clear that corporate America is not living up to society’s expectations – and Americans let us know that they see this moment as an opportunity for companies to hit “reset” and work to meet the needs of all their stakeholders.
Further, when we asked them which stakeholders they believe were top priority for companies in 2020, 37% of Americans responded that employees were a key focus in 2020, a significant 17 percentage point increase from the year prior. Yet the plurality (46%) says that shareholders are companies’ top priority – suggesting that, while we know from our other survey work that Americans want employees to be a company’s top priority, corporate America is not yet aligned with their views.
Americans Expect Companies to Prioritize and Protect Workers
In the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, JUST Capital set to work tracking corporate responses to COVID-19 – and also reached out to the public at regular intervals for their feedback on where they think corporations should focus their efforts. In a quick pulse survey fielded in April 2020, 89% of Americans agreed that protecting the personal safety of frontline workers (including providing PPE) should be at the top of the list:
In June 2020, we reached out to Americans again as we approached the reopening phase of the pandemic. Three out of four Americans told us that large companies should continue to prioritize worker health and safety, even if it makes taking a more cautious approach to re-opening.
At the time of this survey, the future of the pandemic was highly uncertain – including whether and when there might be a vaccine, when businesses would be able to reopen, and what support Americans could expect from the government in the short and long term. In the face of this uncertainty, which we of course continue to experience today, Americans let us know that they believed a number of crucial corporate policies needed to be extended for at least another year to support our country’s workforce, and that companies should:
- Enforce safety and sanitation measures (75%);
- Offer workers the flexibility to work from home (75%);
- Provide at least 14 days of paid sick leave (70%); and
- Extend higher hourly pay for essential workers (67%).
Looking ahead to the other side of the pandemic – the timeline for which remains uncertain, even today – 84% of Americans let us know they will remember the companies that did right by their workers, that worked to ensure workers’ health and safety and avoid layoffs. What is more, three-in-four (76%) agreed they will remember those that took missteps in their responses to COVID-19.
The American Public Expects Corporate Leaders to Take a Stand
With the American people ready to hold corporate leaders to account for their responses to the COVID-19 crisis, we asked them how they expect corporate leaders to respond to other critical issues of our time.
Following the killing of George Floyd and too many other Black Americans – and the national reckoning with racial injustice that followed – we tracked and aggregated notable actions from corporate America, and provided actionable guidelines for how companies can combat systemic racism against Black colleagues in the workplace.
Turning to the public for their views on corporate responses – specifically, statements in support of Black Lives Matter and condemnations of white supremacy – we found that 75% of Americans want corporate leader to condemn racism, racial inequality, and racial injustice, but 61% agree that these commitments ring hollow without actions to back them up:
As the year progressed, we found the very foundations of American democracy under threat, and asked the public what they believed the role of companies should be in its preservation. 83% of Americans told us they believe that the health of our economy depends on the strength of our democracy, and in a survey fielded before the 2020 election, a majority (62% or more) shared that they believed companies could step up to help maintain democracy by:
- Making voting more accessible by allowing workers time off to vote in federal, state, and local elections (69%);
- Limiting lobbying efforts that favor shareholder returns over the welfare of other constituencies (65%);
- Taking an active stand against the spread of disinformation by identifying and debunking falsehoods and propaganda (63%);
- Safeguarding the integrity of elections against foreign interference and/or cyberattacks (62%); and
- Directing political donations toward candidates whose platforms explicitly support upholding democracy (62%).
We returned to the public in December, following the election, to ask them how they viewed corporate responsibility under the incoming Biden administration. We found that nearly 80% of Americans expect corporate leaders to continue to speak out on social issues over the next four years – including 87% of Democrats and 75% of both Republicans and Independents.
The year to come will continue to test corporate leaders – with the pandemic still raging, democracy still fragile, and racial inequality still in the process of being dismantled. Americans clearly expect corporate America to take a stand, but not without clear actions to truly move the needle for their stakeholders.
First, Pay Your Workers
Since we first began polling the public back in 2015, Americans let us know year after year that they believe a top priority for companies must be to pay their employees a fair and livable wage – and in the past three years, it was the most important issue in the public’s view. These priorities provide the foundation for our Rankings, and in 2021, paying a fair, livable wage accounted for 9.9% of a company’s score in our Rankings:
In our 2020 Survey – which determined the prioritization of each of the above issues – 80% of Americans let us know that they believe large, public companies have a responsibility to consider the impact they have on all their stakeholders. But only 35% of Americans believe companies are actually having a positive impact on their lowest-paid workers.
Finally – reflecting the critical and intersectional need for companies to take action in this area – 84% of Americans – and 89% of Black Americans – let us know that the most important action for promoting racial diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace is to commit to paying all employees a living wage.
In the year ahead – which we hope will yield progress and even a degree resolution – Americans continue to face an uphill battle in our collective efforts to end the pandemic, fight against systemic inequality, and preserve our democratic system. The voice of the public in 2020 is clear: Corporate America has an active role to play in addressing society’s key issues. We will continue to reach out to Americans to better understand what they believe that role should be – again, not only for a snapshot of their views in this unprecedented time, but most critically, to provide a playbook for corporate America as we continue along a road to recovery.