Corporations’ Social Crusades Often Leave Out Workers

All the good PR in the world won’t raise wages or improve benefits for a company’s employees.

A piggy bank with a frowning face
Nora Carol Photography / Getty / The Atlantic

For many American companies, public support for social causes has become an essential part of their business. Earlier this year, Gillette stoked controversy with a campaign urging men to rethink their idea of masculinity. The lingerie brand Aerie has amassed enormous goodwill with years of body-positive underwear ads.

Customers have come to expect corporations to take positions, and now even companies that might rather demur are being conscripted into a kind of dubious activism: Most recently, Hollywood studios reluctantly stepped into the fray over Georgia’s abortion ban after public pressure to take a stand in support of reproductive rights.

“I think, right or wrong, people are looking to business leaders for direction and leadership because they’re not getting that out of Washington,” said Edward Stack, the CEO of Dick’s Sporting Goods, on a panel at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. “I think so many people in business today are trying to fill that void, because we feel like we have to.”

When it comes to how businesses treat their employees, however, that same enthusiasm for equality and progress is often nowhere to be found. Wage stagnation persists even as American corporations’ profits grow, and the gig economy has made it difficult for many workers to take comfort in the basics of traditional employment, such as economic stability and access to health care. Meaningfully raising wages and improving benefits for employees at the expense of profits can feel like the third rail of American enterprise.

“Milton Friedman says businesses should only make money, and I just disagree with that,” said Tom Wilson, the chairman of the United States Chamber of Commerce and the CEO of Allstate, on the same panel. “You’ve got to serve customers. You’ve got to make money, because that’s one of the things you get paid to do. But you’ve also got to create jobs and improve our communities.”

Even many executives who might be personally amenable to improving conditions for employees, Wilson contended, fail to do so out of fealty to their C-suite peers at other companies who don’t want the pressure to do the same. “It’s up to us to be aggressive about making the world better, and that means taking on your own compatriots,” Wilson said. For his part, Wilson said that has meant raising Allstate’s internal minimum wage to $15 an hour several years ago, as well as giving employees time off to vote and do charity work with institutional support.

Part of the problem might be that, for all the things businesses measure and review, few American corporations keep tallies of how many jobs they create in a particular year, or how many of those jobs are high-value roles that pay a solid wage for reasonable work hours.

“Businesses need to be held accountable for creating more high-value jobs,” Wilson said, explaining that executives shouldn’t point to the currently low unemployment rate to mask their own company’s low wages and poor working conditions. “Thirty-seven percent of Americans don’t have $400 for an emergency, so you can’t take comfort in the fact that they’re all working.”

To keep companies honest, Wilson suggested creating a federal-standards board that would control how job creation is calculated and delineate between gigs and stable employment. As for one of executives’ favorite excuses—that they have to be responsive to shareholders, who won’t let them improve wages or reduce profits—Wilson didn’t sound impressed. “The shareholder thing, I think that’s completely crap, to be honest. The noisiest ones are the ones who are in and out; they’re trading all the time, and you just have to ignore them,” he urged. “You don’t get paid to run a business to take orders, you get paid to run a company.”