That sentiment emerged from a November survey of 10,000 Americans by Just Capital, a nonprofit group founded by billionaire Paul Tudor Jones II that also ranks companies for how “just” or ethical they are in their business practices.
More Americans ranked the treatment of workers above all other issues, including dealings with customers, products, the environment, or the larger community—when it comes to evaluating a business’s stature. Conducted in partnership with the University of Chicago’s research institution, NORC, the survey determined that 85% of Democrats and 72% of Republicans feel that companies don’t share enough of their success with workers.
With unemployment currently standing at a 17-year low, and at a time when “we haven’t seen corporate profits this high and with equity markets at a record high, there’s still a substantial group of working Americans who just are not benefiting from that,” said Martin Whittaker, CEO of Just Capital. “It doesn’t surprise me that workers, and how a company treats its workers, is front and center.”
The survey likely reveals a missed opportunity for companies that want to promote social responsibility to entice consumers or employees who increasingly say they prefer to spend money with (or work for) businesses that reflect their values. In fact, according to the survey, 85% of Americans reported that they would pay more for a product associated with “just” business practices, while 79% claim they’d take a pay cut to work at such a firm.
Yet even though many companies boast about their environmental practices and commitments, their volunteer efforts within the community, or their customer service, the survey provides a helpful reminder that those firms need to think about doing more to promote higher wages and inclusive hiring practices to distinguish themselves. Too many companies, says William Lazonick, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, are “talking about a lot of issues that don’t cost them a lot to deal with and give them a good face. But the fundamentals of how you treat your workers are being neglected.”
The survey indicated that 25% of respondents ranked workers as the most important factor in assessing corporate behavior. Ten percent of the time, job creation was rated most important, making the workforce far and away the most important factor Americans use to evaluate a company’s actions. These two criteria were then followed by how businesses treat customers (19%), the quality of their products (17%), their environmental record (13%), and finally, their interactions with local communities (11%). In sum, the report gives an insightful glimpse into the specific business practices deemed most important by American consumers, such as efficient use of resources, truth in advertising, or safe working conditions.
Some companies have made a name for themselves by paying better wages or offering more generous benefits to their employees. Costco’s relatively generous pay and benefits structure is often held out as an exemplar in the retail industry. But Whittaker suggests growing transparency about worker pays through social media and sites like Glassdoor or PayScale could lead to a more strategic advantage for companies to promote.
“Worker pay, worker treatment, benefits, and inclusion and diversity—all of those things have quite recently become lightning-rod issues,” he said. “Only recently have we been getting the data to know.”
Some companies have been increasingly boasting of competitive pay or generous benefits and health coverage in their public relations campaigns—yet when they do, they seem to be aiming for workers in a tight labor market rather than appealing to customers who might prefer to buy from worker-friendly companies. For example, a growing number of companies, particularly those seeking young workers with high-demand skills in fields like technology and financial services, have been publicizing their family leave benefits, and retailers increasingly promote efforts to raise their own minimum wages above state or federal baselines.
Whittaker noted one thing that caught him by surprise with the survey data: this is, how similar the priorities were across different demographic groups.
“I expected to see wild swings on issues of greatest importance,” he said. “But whether it was political or economic or other cuts of the data, we really didn’t see that. People, for the most part, just want companies to treat people as human beings, whether as a worker or as a customer. That’s table stakes.”