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Americans know what they want from companies. It’s time to listen

October 3, 2022, 10:39 AM UTC
Employees prepare a customer’s order at a McDonald’s restaurant in New York
Inflation hits low-wage workers hardest, and their disengagement comes at a cost for companies.
ANGELA WEISS - AFP - Getty Images)

“The voice of the American people” is a phrase often associated with politics and, inevitably, growing partisan divides.

However, when applied to what the public wants corporate America to focus on, the message is one of clear unity. Across every demographic group—whether it’s political affiliation, race, gender, or income level—Americans want companies to invest in their workforce and pay a fair living wage.  

The reasons are obvious: Rising inflation, the specter of recession, and ongoing fears of job loss and financial insecurity affect tens of millions of gainfully employed Americans. Low-income earners, in particular, bear the brunt of the impacts of inflation. As more companies look to scale back costs, low-wage workers are at the highest risk of losing their jobs or having their hours cut.

There’s also something deeper at play. The very notion of work—providing for one’s family, contributing to society, and shaping one’s identity—is something that binds all of us at a fundamental level. It’s how we spend most of our time. It provides the means by which we attempt to fulfill our Maslowian hierarchy of needs, and where we hope to gain respect and dignity. It’s where we can be creative, solve problems, and contribute to our communities. If we are lucky, work helps shape our deeper purpose in life.

Since 2015, JUST Capital has surveyed more than 160,000 Americans, representative of the U.S. adult population, asking them what issues matter most when it comes to business behavior. Their answers measure the country’s pulse and paint a picture of hope, opportunity, and purpose. Every year, worker issues have consistently commanded the highest share of priority, and this year is no different. JUST’s latest polling shows four of the top six priorities of the public are wages, health, training, and benefits.

For companies, the first step on this journey is to listen to what workers really want, beginning with paying a fair living wage, an issue that surfaces repeatedly in JUST’s survey.

We know it can’t stop there. A Chief Executives for Corporate Purpose study supported by the Ford Foundation found that in addition to wages, what’s critical to attract and retain talent is the stability of pay, paid time off, safety, adequate shift schedules, flexibility, and a sense of purpose and dignity at work (even if it means lower pay).

These needs predate the pandemic. Indeed a 2019 study revealed that only 40% of employed Americans felt they were in good jobs, while 44% said they were in mediocre jobs, and 16% described their jobs as bad. Less than a third of workers in bad jobs claimed they had a high quality of life.

What the pandemic catalyzed was a fundamental shift in expectations for workers, with many reevaluating what’s most important to them. Some, particularly those in low-wage roles, have changed jobs or are looking toward unionization or other forms of collective bargaining and self-organization. With wage hikes over the past year failing to keep pace with record-high inflation, many workers are also feeling more dissatisfied. Whatever you call it—“quiet quitting,” “coasting culture,” or something else—such worker disengagement comes at a cost. In a tight labor market, engaging workers supports top-line growth (through increased productivity, customer service, and innovation) and decreases turnover costs.

Importantly, it also helps to build long-term business success and superior financial returns. Those in JUST Capital’s broad-based JUST Index (JULCD) and the JUST 100 Index (JUONETR) have outperformed the benchmark Russell 1000 index by 7.5% and 8%, respectively, since their inception dates. The top 10% of companies in JUST’s rankings outperformed the bottom 10% by almost 5,000 basis points (50%) since January 2018. In each case, workforce-related criteria are by far the highest weighted factors and the key driver of performance.

How corporate America can follow the data

Take the Worker Voice Design Lab, a cutting-edge, yearlong partnership with IDEO and the Ford Foundation to help an airline, a health system, and a port authority use design solutions to understand what they can learn and earn by listening to their frontline workers, to both boost employee well-being and promote business objectives. The approaches developed through this project translate to virtually every sector. Companies can deploy these mechanisms to ensure they are tapping into work experience expertise.

Resources and tools are being created by organizations like JUST Capital, the Good Jobs Initiative, and Financial Health Network to help companies assess and improve job quality and resolve workforce issues in a way that is rooted in the values of everyday Americans. Corporate leaders may be facing a complex set of headwinds, but they have a clear directive and relatively simple first steps.

As Hubert Joly, former CEO of Best Buy (and JUST adviser) recently noted about turning around that company, “I would ask the associates in the store, what’s working, what’s not working, what do you need. They of course had all the answers. My job was very easy: listen, make notes, and do as I was told. They had all the answers because they knew from the frontlines. It was not for me to tell them what to do, it was for me to listen.”

Now is the time for employers to listen to their workforce and collectively ensure our economy delivers on the promise of the American Dream for everyone. Whichever way you look at it, for business leaders looking to navigate increasingly complex economic, social, and political operating conditions, investing in workers is a powerful North Star, and a way to tangibly uphold the foundational principles of our democracy.

Ritse Erumi is a program officer on the Future of Work(ers) team at the Ford Foundation. Martin Whittaker is the CEO of JUST Capital.

The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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