“The voice of the American people” is a phrase often associated with politics and, inevitably, growing partisan divisions.
However, when applied to what the public wants corporate America to focus on, the message is one of clear unity. Across all demographic groups, whether it’s political affiliation, race, gender, or income level, Americans want companies to invest in their workforce and pay them a living wage.
The reasons are obvious: rising inflation, the specter of recession, and lingering fears of job loss and financial insecurity are affecting tens of millions of gainfully employed Americans. Low-income people, in particular, bear the brunt of the effects of inflation. As more companies seek to cut costs, low-wage workers face the greatest risk of losing their jobs or having their hours reduced.
There is also something deeper at play. The very notion of work – providing for your family, contributing to society and shaping your identity – is something that connects us all at a fundamental level. This is how we spend most of our time. It provides the means by which we attempt to satisfy our Maslow hierarchy of needs and where we hope to earn 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 American adult population, asking them what the most important business behavior issues are. Their responses measure the pulse of the country and paint a picture of hope, opportunity and purpose. Every year, workers’ issues have always taken the highest priority, and this year is no different. The latest JUST poll shows that four of the public’s top six priorities are wages, health, training and benefits.
For companies, the first step on this journey is to listen to what workers really want, starting with paying a living wage, an issue that comes up repeatedly in the JUST survey.
We know it can’t stop there. A study by Chief Executives for Corporate Purpose supported by the Ford Foundation found that in addition to salaries, what is essential for attracting and retaining talent is salary stability, paid holidays, security, adequate working hours , flexibility and a sense of purpose and dignity at work (even if it means a pay cut).
These needs predate the pandemic. Indeed, a 2019 study found that only 40% of employed Americans felt they had good jobs, while 44% said they had mediocre jobs and 16% described their jobs as bad. Less than a third of workers in bad jobs reported having a high quality of life.
What the pandemic has catalyzed is a fundamental shift in worker expectations, with many reassessing what is most important to them. Some, especially those in low-wage positions, have changed jobs or are turning to unionization or other forms of collective bargaining and self-organization. With last year’s wage increases failing to keep pace with record inflation, many workers also feel more dissatisfied. Whatever you call it – “silent resignation”, “freewheeling culture” or whatever – such worker disengagement comes at a cost. In a tight labor market, worker engagement supports top line growth (through increased productivity, customer service and innovation) and reduces turnover costs.
Importantly, it also contributes to long-term business success and superior financial returns. JUST Capital’s JUST Broad Index (JULCD) and JUST 100 Index (JUONETR) have outperformed the benchmark Russell 1000 Index by 7.5% and 8%, respectively, since their inception dates. The top 10% performers in the JUST ranking have outperformed the bottom 10% performers by nearly 5,000 basis points (50%) since January 2018. In each case, labor criteria are by far the most weighted factors and the main driver of performance.
How US companies can track data
Take the Worker Voice Design Lab, a year-long, cutting-edge partnership with IDEO and the Ford Foundation to help an airline, health system and port authority use design solutions to understand what they can learn and win by listening to their frontline workers, both to improve employee well-being and promote company goals. The approaches developed within the framework of this project apply to practically all sectors. Companies can deploy these mechanisms to ensure they are leveraging work experience expertise.
Resources and tools are created by organizations such as JUST Capital, the Good Jobs Initiative and the Financial Health Network to help companies assess and improve job quality and address workforce issues. a way rooted in the values of ordinary Americans. Business leaders may face a complex set of headwinds, but they have a clear guideline and relatively simple first steps.
As Hubert Joly, former CEO of Best Buy (and JUST Advisor) recently noted of this company’s turnaround, “I would ask store associates, what’s working, what’s not, what have you need. Of course they had all the answers, my job was very simple: listen, note and do what I was told. They had all the answers because they knew from the front. It wasn’t up to me to tell them what to do, it was up to 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 all. 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 mighty North Star and a way to defend concretely the fundamental principles of our democracy.
Erumi Zippers is a program manager with the Future of Work(ers) team at the Ford Foundation. Martin Whittaker is the CEO of JUST Capital
The opinions expressed in Fortune.com comments are solely the opinions of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.
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