JUST Report

ANNUAL SURVEY: In a Year of Strikes, Worker Issues Like Wages and Mobility Top the American Public’s Priorities for Companies

JUST Capital’s 2023 Issues Report – The People’s Priorities is by Jennifer Tonti, Managing Director, Survey Research & Insights.

In every year that we’ve been measuring which issues matter most to the public when it comes to just business behavior (what we call The People’s Priorities), the events of that year can determine which issues Americans deem more important than others, as well as the degree to which the public prioritizes each issue. The outputs of this ongoing study help provide a roadmap for companies regarding what issues they should be tracking and investing in to stay one step ahead of shifting expectations.

The top takeaway from this year’s polling is how enduring and consistent the public is when it comes to what they want the nation’s largest public companies to prioritize. Year after year, Americans say that companies should put workers squarely at the heart of their business practices, foremost by paying their workers a fair and living wage. Indeed, Worker Issues continue to command the highest share of priority (42%) among the 20 stakeholder-related issues we measure, with four of the five Worker Issues once again among the top six priorities of the public, with Workforce Advancement gaining in importance this year. 

Even more encouraging is that despite vocal attempts by politicians to use business as a divisive wedge issue this year, Americans remain united, not divided, across political ideologies around what they want from companies today. As in years past, we found a broad consensus across demographic and political cohorts – liberal, conservative, high-income, low-income, men, women, young generations, older generations, and white, Black, and Hispanic Americans – that Workers should be corporate America’s top stakeholder priority and that paying a fair, living wage should be the number-one issue to prioritize.

2023 Issues – Determining the People’s Priorities

JUST’s annual Rankings process begins with focus group conversations with a diverse mix of Americans across the U.S., the goal of which is to understand the actions and behaviors they expect from a “just” business. Focus groups enable our research team to hear the unvarnished voice of the public speak about what issues matter most, and whether their opinions have changed over time. The polling team then distills the major themes of these discussions into statements that capture these concepts, which we call “Issues.” In 2023 (as in the past two years), this work yielded 20 Issues. 

Since the public initially tells us that all of these Issues are of high importance, we then conduct a choice modeling exercise as part of our Annual Survey work, enabling us to derive the relative importance of these 20 Issues. From here, we extract a “weight” per Issue that we use as the foundation for our Rankings of America’s Most JUST Companies. The weights below reflect the probability that an individual would choose that Issue as most important to defining a just company, based on a representative sample of 3,001 Americans. These weights power our analysis of corporate stakeholder performance at the country’s largest companies, including our annual Rankings of America’s Most JUST Companies.

Each Issue is color-coded by the stakeholder it most impacts. While we reference the prioritization of several Issues in this report, please note that the relative importance between many of these Issues often varies by a fraction of a percentage point. 

Worker Issues – specifically pay and advancement – are paramount

As we saw in 2022, four of the five Worker Issues are among the top six-ranked issues overall. The top-most prioritized issue, “Pays workers fairly and offers a living wage that covers the cost of basic needs at the local level” has been the number one issue for the last six years in a row, and will comprise a substantial 17.7% of companies’ scores in our upcoming 2024 Rankings. This percentage, though lower than we saw last year (21.2%), is still far-and-away the highest across all 20 issues. And the issue is ranked first among nearly every demographic cohort.

From auto to health care to entertainment, 2023 has marked a year of labor strikes across industries. Rising inflation, rapid evolution of AI technology, and the broader impacts of the pandemic on the U.S. workforce have fueled demands for better pay, working conditions, and job security. Even threats of a strike, as was the case for airline pilots and UPS workers this year, has spurred companies to raise wages and enhance benefits. Workers are no longer willing to accept pay that doesn’t allow them to provide for themselves or their families. 

In 2023, “Focuses on workforce retention and employee advancement by providing training, education, and career development opportunities” comprises 8.3% of a company’s score, and now is the second highest-ranked worker issue. In the past two years, we’ve seen the issue of retention and advancement steadily increase in importance among the public. This increase occurs alongside the rapid evolution and adoption of AI and other technology by many employers. Fears of how this technology could replace, or diminish, certain jobs in part fueled strikes from Hollywood writers and actors and auto workers. As more workers fear losing their jobs, investing in growth, training, and opportunities for employees can have a positive effect on retention and send an important signal to workers that employers value them. Many companies have already started to recognize and act on this.   

Benefits and Worker Health & Safety rank fifth and sixth among the public’s priorities. “Offers a quality benefits package and supports good work-life balance for all employees” comprises 7.6% of a company’s score, up from 6.2% in the previous year. “Protects the health, safety, and well-being of workers beyond what is required by law” remains one highest ranked issues at number six, but its importance has decreased from 7.6% last year to 5.8% this year as the urgency of worker health and safety slows after the height of the pandemic.

One of the obvious reasons why Worker Issues consistently get the highest prioritization among the five stakeholder groups may be attributable to the fact that at some point or another in everyone’s life, they are a worker. Thus, these issues are arguably closer to home than those that are reportedly as important overall, but come in at a lower relative priority (such as communities or the environment) in our polling. What the continued prioritization of Worker Issues across seven years of gathering this data is definitely saying is that, despite all the work companies are doing to make sure their workforce is happy and protected, there is still more to do. A recent Deloitte survey found that there is a marked discrepancy in perceptions of workforce well-being between employees and employers. The survey found that while many leaders say they’re taking accountability for workforce well-being, workers simply aren’t seeing their efforts. 

There is a very clear business case for corporate leaders to focus on Worker Issues. Investing in good jobs that provide strong benefits, fair wages, and opportunities for advancement is a value generator for companies. In March, we soft launched the first iteration of the JUST Jobs Scorecard and have plans to publicly launch the Scorecard in early 2024. The tool helps companies better understand their current performance on a range of job quality metrics like training and development, and how they could improve. When examining the top-scoring companies across the Scorecard’s categories, we found they outperformed their peers in 2022. Prioritizing worker issues is an opportunity for companies to lead and, in turn, boost their bottom line.

Other top Issues: local job creation and accountability to stakeholders

One Issue that falls under the Communities stakeholder, “Creates jobs in the U.S. and provides employment opportunities for communities that need them,” is once again second in relative importance, comprising 11.8% of a company’s score in our Rankings. Two in three respondents (66%) say that creating jobs in the U.S. is more important than last year. 

Accountability to Stakeholders, an issue that falls under Shareholders & Governance, is of key importance to Americans as well. “Has an independent, diverse board that holds leadership accountable to the needs of workers, customers, communities, the environment, and shareholders” comprises 9.7% of a company’s score, and is the third most important Issue in 2023, reinforcing the fact that in the eyes of everyday Americans, companies have a broad responsibility to serve all the stakeholders that drive the long-term success of the company (not just shareholders), and that leadership should be held accountable by its board.

Americans are united, not divided, on what stakeholders and issues matters most

The People’s Priorities are based on responses from more than 3,000 U.S. adults, who are a full representative cross-section of Americans. This means we hear from a variety of voices, both by demographic such as race/ethnicity, gender, income levels, and age, as well as behavioral metrics such as political ideologies or whether or not respondents are active investors. What we found was, despite it being a year with increasingly divisive rhetoric in politics and in the media, the public remains remarkably consistent in what they want companies to prioritize today. Across every demographic group we surveyed, whether political affiliation, race, gender, age, or income group, Americans are united in wanting companies to prioritize Workers as the most important stakeholder and nearly all cohorts prioritize the same top three Issues: Pays a fair, living wage; Creates jobs in the U.S.; and Prioritizes accountability to all stakeholders

Stakeholder prioritization: Workers in front

To provide further clarity around how to better balance stakeholder interests, we classify each Issue by the stakeholder it affects most, organizing the 20 Issues into five stakeholder groups: Workers, Customers, Communities, the Environment, and Shareholders & Governance. 

Specifically, we assign each of the 20 Issues to the one (and only one) stakeholder it most impacts. For example: “Compels leadership to act ethically and with integrity and avoid wrongdoings” is assigned to Shareholders & Governance, whereas “Is transparent in communications with customers about its products, services, and operations” is assigned to the Customers stakeholder. The weight of each stakeholder group is calculated by summing all of its associated Issue weights. 

Workers (42%)
For the sixth consecutive year, the American public prioritizes Workers as the most important stakeholder by a significant margin. The Workers stakeholder considers a company’s performance on factors related to how it invests in its employees, including (1) paying a fair, living wage; (2) supporting workforce retention, advancement, and training; (3) providing benefits and work-life balance; (4) protecting worker health and safety; and (5) cultivating a diverse and inclusive workplace.

Communities (18%)
The Communities stakeholder considers a company’s performance on factors related to how it supports its communities, including (1) creating jobs in the U.S.; (2) addressing human rights issues in the supply chain; (3) contributing to community development; and (4) giving back to local communities.

Shareholders & Governance (16%)
Issues included in this grouping explore how a company maintains good governance and delivers value to its shareholders by (1) prioritizing accountability to all stakeholders; (2) acting ethically at the leadership level; and (2) generating returns for investors.

Customers (14%)
The Customers stakeholder considers a company’s performance on factors related to how it treats its customers, including (1) protecting customer privacy; (2) treating customers fairly; (3) communicating transparently; and (4) making beneficial products.

Environment (11%)
The Environment stakeholder considers a company’s performance on factors related to how it reduces its environmental impact, including (1) minimizing pollution; (2) using sustainable materials; (3) combating climate change; and (4) using resources efficiently.

Using the public’s priorities as a roadmap to deliver long-term value

Year after year, we continue to see that the public supports a movement away from shareholder primacy toward a more stakeholder value-driven operational model of business, one that takes America’s largest companies on a journey to becoming more just. Results from this latest survey shows that the areas Americans want corporations to prioritize have not changed substantially in the past few years. The labor strikes and demands of the last year, however, have added new urgency to them.

It’s become more clear to corporate America that ignoring these priorities presents a significant risk to business. Now is the time for proactive action. And the views of the American public offer a helpful roadmap. We hope that this report once again provides clear guidance on the specific actions businesses can take today to rebuild trust in business and markets as a force for good.


A Representative Look at the Public’s Views

Since its inception, the mission of JUST Capital is to demonstrate how just business – defined by the priorities of the public – is better business. Our goal is to help companies create value for all their stakeholders – their workers, customers, communities, the environment, and shareholders – by focusing on the issues that matter most to the American public. The goal is to help companies improve, and in turn, improve the lives of their workers, customers, and society writ large.

At the core of our work is a robust research program that starts with focus groups in which we ask the American public to identify the policies, practices, and behaviors companies should prioritize to be considered just, (which we call “Issues”). These Issues include fair pay and living wage; a more diverse and inclusive workplace; stronger, healthier communities; good jobs; a cleaner environment; and more. Then, based on sophisticated polling of a representative sample of Americans, we estimate the relative importance of these behaviors – in other words, how important to defining a just company each behavior is relative to others.

Since 2015, JUST Capital has surveyed more than 172,000 Americans – representative of the U.S. adult population – asking them to define just business behavior. For the past two years, we have partnered with SSRS, an objective, non-partisan research institution that provides scientifically rigorous statistical surveys of the U.S. population, to survey more than 3,000 Americans on their perspectives.

Defining a Just Company

Before answering questions about the just behavior of large companies, it is important for respondents to have a clear definition of the concept. Below is the definition we have provided to our focus group and survey respondents since 2022: A just company operates in a way that serves its workers, customers, shareholders, the environment, and the communities it affects, even if it comes at a cost.

Summary of Methods

We conducted the 20 question survey online with a probability-based sample attained through the exhaustive statistical sampling methods employed by SSRS. The SSRS Opinion Panel is a nationally representative probability-based web panel, and findings are generalizable to the general adult population.

The full survey was conducted from June 23 to July 5, 2023 among a general population sample of 3,001 English- and Spanish-speaking U.S. adults 18+ years of age, with an oversample of 590 Hispanic and 411 non-Hispanic Black respondents. Panelists were sent an email invitation to take the survey online as well as up to eight reminder emails throughout the field period. The survey program was optimized so that respondents could complete it using a desktop or laptop computer as well as a mobile device. In total, 900 respondents completed the survey on a computer and 2,101 completed it on a mobile device.

The margin of error is +/- 2.2% at the 95% confidence level. Results were weighted to U.S. Census parameters for age, gender, education, race/Hispanic ethnicity, and Census Division to ensure representativeness of the U.S. population. All margins of error include “design effects” to adjust for the effects of weighting.

To identify the priorities of the public, we calculate for each Issue the probability that an individual would choose that as most important to defining a just company. As such, there are 20 probabilities calculated from the 20 Issues. These probabilities can be referred to as weights as each represents the relative importance of one Issue versus another. To illustrate more explicitly, the Issue “Creates jobs in the U.S.” was assigned a weight of 11.8% as there is a 1.18 in 10 chance that a respondent chosen at random will identify this Issue as most important in defining a just company. By comparison, the weight assigned to “Generates returns for investors over the long term” has a 1.7% weight.

Our full body of survey work for 2023 also includes six focus groups conducted in partnership with The Harris Poll. To learn more about how this survey data drives JUST Capital’s analysis and Rankings of the largest publicly traded U.S. companies, visit the Methodology section of our website.

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