Americans Expect Business to Make a Difference
Whose Interests Come First?
Corporate slogans often talk about “putting customers first,” but many customers — including those polled in the 2014 Public Affairs Pulse survey — don’t feel high on anyone’s priority list.
Only six percent say major companies put customers’ interests first, while 49 percent say firms put the interests of stockholders first. Interestingly, one-third says the needs of top executives get the most attention from major companies. While the percentage assuming firms exist to help their own executives is down 10 percentage points from last year, it is still remarkably high — and it is another indication of the lack of trust in corporate leadership.
What’s more, the belief that corporations pay the most attention to stockholders and top executives is consistent no matter a person’s gender, race, age, education or household income. In other words, no demographic group even comes close to assuming that companies put the interests of customers, employees or local communities ahead of stockholders and top executives.
Who do Americans think major companies should put first? Four in ten Americans (43%) say major companies should put the interests of their customers first, followed by about equal shares who say companies should serve their own employees (21%) and their local communities (20%). Only a small segment of the public thinks stockholders and top executives deserve top billing (11% and 3%, respectively). Once again, this pattern holds true for every demographic group interviewed.
High Expectations for Corporate Behavior
Americans not only expect companies to rethink priorities; they also expect them to play a positive role in society. For starters, nearly everyone believes it’s somewhat or very important that firms make sure their employees behave ethically. (Eighty-four percent say it is very important.)
The vast majority of the public would also like to see corporate efforts to minimize any negative impact on the environment, with 75 percent calling environmental responsibility a very important priority. Large majorities want companies to make financial contributions to charities, encourage employees to volunteer their time to help others and, in general, take a leadership role in helping society in ways that go beyond operating a business. (At least 85 percent of Americans believe these steps are somewhat or very important.)
Americans Look to Business for Solutions
Only 41 percent of Americans have some or a lot of trust and confidence in the federal government to solve the most important problems facing the country. At a time when trust and expectations for government are low, it’s worth noting that three-quarters of Americans say it’s somewhat or very important that major companies offer to help government solve problems.
In fact, the public would like private businesses to take on more financial responsibility for helping solve national problems that have traditionally been government’s responsibility. These costs include: improving the quality and affordability of health care (66%); providing community services such as food banks, free clinics and job training for the poor (65%); improving the quality of education (63%); and providing relief for disasters like floods, tornadoes and earthquakes (56%). A smaller share of adults (45%) thinks private businesses should shoulder more of the cost of building and maintaining roads, bridges and mass transit.
Taking a Public Stand on Social Issues
It’s hard for corporate America to avoid the culture wars. In recent years, many major companies have spoken out on social issues such as gay marriage, human rights, immigration reform and wilderness protection. Most have done so after considering the opinions of employees, customers and the general public and weighing whether taking a controversial stance would help or hurt their profitability.
At the same time, many corporations have been dragged unwillingly into public debates on social issues because of controversial statements by senior executives, campaign contribution practices and financial support given to advocacy groups.
Some firms have been lauded for their courage to speak up; others have been criticized — or even boycotted — because of their words and actions.
So is it a good thing or a bad thing for companies to weigh in on social issues?
For most issues, majorities of Americans agree that corporations are right to take a public stand. (The survey did not specify whether a company should be for or against changes in public policies on these issues.) For example, seven in ten adults say firms should speak out on the protection of wilderness areas and over 60 percent believe they should take a stand on racial and gender discrimination. Smaller majorities are supportive of companies weighing in on climate change, human rights in foreign countries and immigration issues.
The one surprising exception is the debate over gay marriage. A recent Gallup poll showed that 55 percent of Americans believe married same-sex couples should have the same rights as heterosexual married couples. And yet, according to the Public Affairs Pulse survey, 65 percent of the public say corporations should stay out of the debate altogether. As expected, young adults under 30 are the biggest proponents of firms taking a public stand on gay marriage. However, a plurality of this age group (48%) still think companies should not get involved on the issue.
The Public Affairs Pulse survey, conducted June 16-29, 2014, by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, is based on telephone interviews with 1,609 adults nationwide.