A man in North Carolina said: “Health care is a human right. Companies should not cut corners on this aspect.”

A woman in Idaho said: “Most companies now hire workers part time so they don’t have to provide insurance.”

A woman in Pennsylvania said: “When firms were required to provide health insurance to full-time employees, they cut the hours of full-time employees so they became part-timers.  That was manipulative.” [1]

These people were among the over 43,000 Americans who participated in JUST Capital’s 2015 public opinion research on the role of the corporation in society.  In what we believe to be the largest effort of its kind to date, we conducted five waves of research, involving focus groups, in-depth telephone interviews, electronic discussion forums, and online surveys, with samples balanced to census categories.[2]  We asked people what it meant for a corporation to be “just,” meaning “fair, balanced, equitable” and “’doing the right’ thing, whatever you may think that is.”  Corporations’ role in protecting their employees’ health emerged as a key issue.

Overall, pay and benefits for employees are the most important issue in the public’s assessment of corporate justness.[3]  When asked what topics define just corporate behavior in this area, over three-quarters of respondents included the following health-related topics:

  • Employer-sponsored health insurance (medical, dental, vision)
  • Paid sick days
  • Employer follow through on retiree health care and pension commitments
  • Family benefits (maternity, paternity, childcare)
  • Employees not forced into part-time schedules to avoid paying health care costs

Fifty-nine percent also included the health-related item “Exercise, health screening and crisis support programs” in their definition of just employee pay and benefits.[4]

It’s noteworthy that, as we found in every area of our research, the public cares both about concrete material things corporations provide and about the integrity and values according to which they operate.  The list above enumerates not only the benefits themselves, but also how corporations act with regard to them as times change.  Do they try to shift workers into part-time schedules when they suddenly face a legal obligation to provide health care to full-timers, or do they accept that providing such coverage is now part of a corporation’s role in American society?  As a firm goes through various growth phases and transactions, do managers remember their obligations to retired workers, or see them as a cost to be eliminated?  People understand that the choices made at the highest levels of American business have a huge impact on workers on the ground.

There are also large health implications connected to the public’s second-most important aspect of corporate justness, employee satisfaction and fair hiring.  This factor includes, according to at least 75% of those surveyed, the following items:

  • Loyalty to employees (not replacing long-serving workers with cheaper ones and not firing people who are dealing with family emergencies)
  • Nondiscriminatory hiring and promotion (with regard to race, religion, gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or education unrelated to job)
  • Fair handling of grievances (including harassment claims, unionization efforts, and protection of whistleblowers)
  • Respect for employees as people (including work-life balance and individual beliefs)
  • Minimizing impact of layoffs (through advance notice, clear explanation, retraining or severance pay)
  • Hiring of people disadvantaged in workforce (veterans, cognitively disabled, formerly incarcerated)
  • Promotion from within
  • Hired based on merit regardless of educational background
  • Superiors’ appreciation of employees’ work ideas and contribution to company

While the connection to health may be less obvious for this factor than for employee benefits, a recent study by researchers at Harvard and Stanford has found tangible links between many of these issues and health outcomes (Goh et. al, 2015).[5]  For example, the study documents that the stress of job loss or job insecurity is associated with higher rates of illness; the thoughtful handling of severance situations that our respondents believe is an obligation of just corporations would mitigate these effects.  The researchers also show the negative health impacts of work-family conflict, perceptions of unfairness at work, and the absence of social supports in the workplace – all issues that the topic list generated by our research addresses.

The study concludes that “more than 120,000 deaths per year and approximately 5-8% of annual healthcare costs are associated with and may be attributable to how U.S. companies manage their work force.” It’s a stunning conclusion, and one that suggests immense challenges.  But it would likely ring true to many of JUST Capital’s respondents across the country.

In the year to come, JUST will be working to share what we’ve learned from the US public – both about employee health issues and other areas of corporate performance – with corporations, investors, consumers and policy makers.  We believe we can find a collective way forward, through a dialogue in which all Americans have a voice.

Kimberly Gladman, PhD, CFA, is Managing Director for Research at the JUST Capital Foundation.  She serves on the UN-PRI Academic Network Steering Committee, the Research Advisory Committee of US-SIF, and the Global Advisory Council of Cornerstone Capital Group.

[1] These statements were written in by respondents to an open-ended question at the end of an online survey we conducted in August 2015. 

[2] For detail on the JUST methodology, see http://justcapital.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Just-Capital-Survey-Research-Methodology-2015.pdf.  For an overview of findings, see http://justcapital.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Just-Capital-White-Paper-2015.pdf.

[3] According to our weighting survey conducted among 20,000 respondents in July 2015.

[4] Figures from an online survey of 5,000 US respondents in August-September 2015.  Respondents chose from topics derived from the public through earlier waves of qualitative and quantitative research.

[5] http://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Publication%20Files/oph_MS_final_a97f5fc7-0ace-4e5d-b634-8e5516edfd9c.pdf