JUST Capital’s 2021 Issues Report: The People’s Priorities is by Jennifer Tonti, Managing Director, Survey Research & Insights.
As the country struggles to emerge from the pandemic, corporate America continues to face a reckoning with labor policies and practices.
Month over month, the American workforce is seeing record-setting rates of quitting. The latest jobs report from the Department of Labor shows 4.4 million workers left their roles in September, with low-wage workers, employees of color, and women in non-management roles making up a disproportionate amount of those leaving. At the same time, workers across different industries are striking or staging walkouts to make their voices heard. The country is in a moment that’s been deemed The Great Resignation and The Great Reassessment, representing a shifting balance of power between workers and employers.
For corporate leaders, it’s never been more urgent to align their actions with the public’s priorities to meet shifting expectations accelerated by the pandemic. Each year, we ask the American public to identify what Issues matter most when it comes to just business behavior. Those Issues, The People’s Priorities, become the foundation for how we track, analyze, and incentivize corporate behavior change, including our Rankings of America’s Most JUST Companies.
The Issues at the core of our ongoing survey research consistently provide a data-driven roadmap for what corporate leaders should prioritize. And this year we’re seeing the price of inaction. What some might have considered latent sources of market risk – human capital management, diversity and inclusion, climate change – have now become core strategic concerns for corporate leaders. And they have a once in a generation opportunity to shift mindsets and ways of working to meet this moment and create a more just, equitable, and resilient future for us all.
It’s critical to note that despite being incredibly polarized in many respects, the American public – liberal, conservative, high-income, low-income, men, women, young generations, and older generations – has been unified in what it wants from corporate America over the six years we’ve conducted this survey, and that is for companies to put workers at the heart of just business practices. This year is no different. All five Worker Issues – including paying a fair, living wage, protecting worker health and safety, providing benefits and work-life balance, investing in workforce training, and cultivating a diverse and inclusive workplace – are among the top 10 priorities of the public, as they were last year as well.
Below we showcase the key Issues that rose to prominence in 2021 to provide corporate leaders with clear direction for where they should focus their efforts to make their companies more just and stave off emerging challenges from The Great Resignation.
This year, our survey research yielded 20 priorities for just business behavior, or Issues. The percentages 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 3,000 Americans. These probabilities can be referred to as “weights” in that they represent the relative importance of one Issue versus another. We also looked at the data across a selection of demographic breaks – race and ethnicity, political ideology, younger and older generations, low-wage workers, and active investors – and found that there is remarkable consistency in how each perceive Issues the most important to them, with nearly all prioritizing the same top three: Pays a Fair, Living Wage; Creates Jobs in the U.S.; and Prioritizes Accountability to all Stakeholders.
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.
Below we take a look at several key Issues that either rose to the top or moved up significantly in 2021.
“Pays workers fairly and offers a living wage that covers the cost of basic needs at the local level.”
This Issue has consistently remained one of the top three since JUST Capital began polling the public in 2015, and gained nearly six percentage points from last year. That three-quarters of Americans said that this Issue is more important this year than last is no surprise: Workers – particularly those in lower-wage sectors such as retail and hospitality – are walking off jobs at a record rate, often citing insufficient pay, as a primary driver.
Our omnibus polling fielded in July underscores the importance of fair pay to the American public: More than half of respondents (55%) said that in order to compete for workers in a challenging labor market, large companies should prioritize offering higher starting wages to hourly workers. A majority also indicated that higher starting wages (66%) and more comprehensive benefits (76%) should be long-term policy changes, rather than short-term hiring solutions.
“Creates jobs in the U.S. and provides employment opportunities for communities that need them.”
This Issue rises to #2 in relative importance, up from #8 in 2020, and more than two-thirds say that creating jobs in the U.S. is more important than last year. The sharp focus on jobs makes sense considering the country lost over 20 million jobs in the early days of the coronavirus crisis. And despite the fact that the U.S. economy has reportedly recovered 80% of those jobs, there are still four million fewer jobs than there were before the pandemic.
Myriad surveys and reports show that frontline workers in particular are seeking higher quality jobs, especially in communities that have limited employment opportunities. From our 2021 Americans’ Views on Business Survey, the percentage of Americans who say companies have a positive impact on the quality of U.S. jobs has fallen almost 20 percentage points – from 65% in 2018 to 48% in 2021, demonstrating that the public wants companies to focus on creating good quality jobs for American workers to regain trust.
“The board of directors holds executives accountable to the interests of its workers, customers, communities, and the environment, as well as shareholders.”
In 2021 this Issue more than doubles in priority, from 4.2% to 10.6%, and moves to #3 from #11. This is due in part to our refinement of the wording of the Issue this year to reflect prioritization of leadership accountability to stakeholders, beyond creating value for them. In our focus groups this year, we heard loud and clear that we’ve entered a new era of accountability where people want to make sure companies have moved beyond talking the talk and are walking the walk. In our polling from summer 2020, nearly nine in 10 Americans agreed that the COVID-19 crisis provided an opportunity for large companies to hit “reset” and focus on doing right by their stakeholders.
More recent polling shows companies are not moving quite fast enough. In our 2021 Americans’ Views on Business Survey, 84% of Americans agreed that companies “often hide behind public declarations of support for stakeholders but don’t walk the walk.” Americans want companies to follow through on their stakeholder commitments and to be held accountable for prioritizing them.
“Protects the health, safety, and well-being of workers beyond what is required by law.”
The pandemic amplified the need for companies to enact measures to safeguard the health and safety of their workforces; in particular, those deemed essential and/or serving on frontlines, such as healthcare, retail, and factory workers. In 2021, this Issue continues to be critical to the public – with Protecting Worker Health & Safety moving up two places to the fourth most important issue. What’s more, close to 70% of Americans say that this Issue is more important this year than last.
Yet, as the two-year anniversary of the COVID-19 outbreak draws near, the care and attention that companies paid workers during the height of the pandemic seems to be waning – especially for frontline workers who continue to fear for their health and/or face belligerent customers. Findings from our research fielded in March found that there remains serious disagreement between workers and employers about the state of workplace safety. Workers reported experiencing lower levels of health and safety protections than employers reported providing, and were nearly twice as likely (37%) as employers (19%) to report that their health and safety often takes a back seat to profits. The arrival of the Omicron variant demonstrates how important this Issue will continue to be for employers in 2022 and beyond.
“Leadership acts ethically and with integrity and avoids wrongdoings.”
Ethical Leadership rounds out the top five most important Issues this year. Last year, four in five Americans agreed the pandemic had exposed underlying structural problems in our society and opened their eyes to acceptable and unacceptable corporate behavior. They have become more attuned to what behaviors are right and wrong, and the public wants corporate leaders to take ownership when companies make mistakes, cause a crisis, or become embroiled in a controversy.
Our 2021 Views on Business Survey results show Americans are looking to leaders to get things on track: Currently only 22% say companies are headed in the right direction, versus 47% who say companies are headed in the wrong direction, and another 31% who say they don’t know.
“Offers a quality benefits package and supports good work-life balance for all employees.”
While this Issue has consistently ranked in the top 10 priorities year over year, the pandemic significantly changed how people think about the balance between life and work. The components that comprise this Issue – from health insurance to paid time off, paid sick leave, and paid parental leave, as well as remote work and child care – have been driving questions at the heart of the Great Reassessment. One prime example: The pandemic has sparked a child care crisis in our country. With kids schooled at home for the majority of this year and last, the pandemic accentuated the need for quality, affordable caregiving opportunities for working parents – and how the lack thereof has ripple effects across the workforce, particularly for working mothers.
Our August survey on caregiving showed that 41% of respondents had either personally experienced or know someone close to them who has missed work to provide child care for their families, and 36% said either they have, or they know someone who has left a job or switched to part-time work. Companies that listen to their workers and develop benefit offerings that meet their evolving needs will be better poised to win the race for talent as the tight labor market continues into 2022.
“Cultivates a diverse and inclusive workplace with equal opportunity and pay without discrimination.”
The issues of diversity, equity, and inclusivity (DEI) continue to be at the forefront of the minds of Americans when it comes to just business behavior. More than half (54%) of respondents say this Issue is more important than last year. Further, our Views on Business analysis shows that a majority (61%) agrees that companies are indeed making progress advancing DEI in the workplace.
Our November survey of employers and workers in large companies shows that, a year into our nation’s reckoning with racial injustice, most employers (94%) and workers (74%) say that their organization has made a commitment to advancing DEI in the workplace. However, there is also notable divergence in the two groups’ perspectives on how far their companies have come, suggesting that increased accountability and action is still needed. Leaders should more actively seek out feedback from underrepresented groups to deepen and broaden the work.
“Reduces the environmental impact of its products and services by using sustainable materials and renewable energy.”
Although environmental issues comprise just 10% of our ranking model, a significant share of that number belongs to the sustainable products Issue, which has moved up six places to number eight in overall importance, from 14. In 2020, 38% said this Issue is more important than the previous year. In 2021 that percentage grew to 53%, demonstrating the public’s growing interest in supporting renewable energy, low-carbon technology, products made from recyclable/recycled materials, and more.
In our Climate Week poll from September, roughly three-quarters of Americans said that companies that take the following steps can have a moderate-to-high impact on climate change: making changes to ensure all aspects of their business are environmentally sustainable (75%); using environmentally friendly materials (74%); and oil and gas companies leading the transition to clean energy and end fossil fuel production (73%).
A commitment to stakeholder capitalism represents a new North Star for business leaders today.
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: “Leadership acts ethically and with integrity and avoids wrongdoings” is assigned to Shareholders & Governance, whereas “Makes products or offers services that benefit society” is assigned to the Customers stakeholder. The weight of each stakeholder group is calculated by summing all of its associated Issue weights.
For the sixth consecutive year, Workers are prioritized as the most important stakeholder by a significant margin, with five underlying Issues among the top ten overall priorities of the public. 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) protecting worker health and safety, (3) providing benefits and work-life balance, (4) cultivating a diverse and inclusive workplace, and (5) investing in workforce training.
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) respecting human rights in the supply chain, (3) contributing to community development, and (4) giving back to local communities.
In 2021 we added “Governance” to the Shareholders stakeholder be more representative of the Issues included in this grouping that 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 (3) generating returns for investors.
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.
The Environment stakeholder considers a company’s performance on factors related to how it reduces its environmental impact, including (1) developing and supporting sustainable products, (2) minimizing pollution, (3) helping combat climate change, and (4) using resources efficiently.
The path forward is clear. Americans want to see companies shift from a focus on shareholders toward supporting all the stakeholders impacted by their business: including their workers, customers, communities, and the environment, as well as their shareholders. The pandemic accelerated the need for this shift, and the Great Reassessment is showing that progress is not happening fast enough for the majority of Americans.
There has never been a more urgent moment for corporate America to embark on the journey to becoming more just, and we hope this latest survey report provides clear guidance on how companies can reevaluate their priorities and better align their practices with the values of the American people. The data shines a clear, bright light on the specific actions businesses can take today to rebuild trust in business and markets as a force for good.
Since its inception, JUST Capital’s mission has been to build an economy that works for all Americans by helping companies improve how they serve all their stakeholders: workers, customers, communities, the environment, and shareholders. The goal is to encourage and incentivize real change in corporate America’s leadership.
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 – how important for defining a just company each behavior is relative to others.
Since 2015, JUST Capital has surveyed more than 150,000 Americans – representative of the U.S. adult population – asking them to define just business behavior. For the core of this year’s survey, we turned to SSRS, an objective, non-partisan research institution that provides scientifically rigorous statistical surveys of the U.S. population to engage 3,000 Americans who reflect a cross section of America. We captured perspectives across generational and ideological divides, varying income and education levels, race, gender, and more.
Before answering questions about the just behavior of large companies, it was important to first define the concept. Below is the definition we had provided our focus group and survey respondents: 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.
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 July 28 to August 10, 2021 among a general population sample of 3,000 English- and Spanish-speaking U.S. adults 18+ years of age, with an oversample of 507 Hispanic and 461 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, 1,230 completed the survey on a computer and 1,770 completed on a mobile device.
The margin of error is +/- 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 it is the relative importance of one Issue versus another. To illustrate more explicitly, the Issue “Prioritizes accountability to all stakeholders” was assigned a weight of 10.6% as there is a roughly one 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 “Contributes to community development and uses local products and resources where possible” has a 2.2% weight.
Our full body of survey work for 2021 also includes six focus groups conducted in partnership with The Harris Poll and 10 additional surveys fielded throughout the year. 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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