With unemployment 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 also could reveal a missed opportunity for companies that try to promote their social responsibility in a bid to woo consumers or employees who increasingly want to spend money with or work for companies that share their values. According to the survey, 85 percent of Americans said they would pay more for a product with "just" business practices, while 79 percent said they would take a pay cut to work at such a firm.
But while many companies tout their environmental practices, their volunteer efforts in local communities or their customer service, the survey offers a reminder that they should consider doing more to convincingly promote higher wages or nondiscriminatory hiring practices as a way to set themselves apart. Too many companies, says William Lazonick, an economics professor at 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 found that 23 percent of the time, respondents ranked workers as most important when it comes to their priorities for corporate behavior, and another 10 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. It was followed by how they treat their customers (19 percent), the quality of their products (17 percent), their treatment of the environment (13 percent) and their interactions with their local communities (11 percent). In essence, the report offers a guideline for companies about what business practices are more important to American consumers, such as efficient use of resources, truth in advertising or safe working conditions.
Some companies have distinguished themselves with customers by paying better wages or offering more generous benefits to their employees — Costco's relatively better pay and health insurance in the retail industry are often noted. But Whittaker suggests a growing transparency about worker pay through social media and sites like Glassdoor or PayScale could prompt it to become even more of a 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 touting their pay or benefits in public relations campaigns, but when they do, they appear more aimed at attracting workers in a tight labor market than appealing to customers who may prefer to buy from worker-friendly companies. For example, more companies, particularly those seeking young workers with high-demand skills in fields like technology and financial services, have been touting their longer family leave benefits, and some retailers have promoted their efforts in recent years to raise their own minimum wages above state or federal baselines.
Whittaker said one thing that surprised him about the survey data was 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 a human being, whether as a worker or as a customer. That’s table stakes."