College students about to embark on their careers see a very different workplace from that of their parents. Among the many changes, a particularly interesting phenomenon has emerged: companies have become more openly political than ever before.
They are increasingly taking stands on political issues, issuing opinions to the courts, and injecting politics into their advertising. For example, when the Trump administration announced plans to eliminate federal protections for two national monuments in Utah, Patagonia sued the administration and launched a website that proclaimed: “The President stole your land.”
Recent investigations have included examining how consumers react when a company or its CEO becomes politically active; however, little is known about how it might affect recruiting of soon-to-be graduates like us.
So, as part of a course on corporate responsibility management during this academic year, Drexel students conducted a nationwide study of graduating college students. Their findings paint a different picture of how college recruits react to corporate political activism than industry leaders might expect.
Millennials Are Politically Aware
Recruiting talented college graduates is a constant struggle for companies. Many don’t yet know how to speak to young job seekers, with one recent study finding that 92% of companies believe they have a “brand problem” when it comes to recruiting millennials.
Politics can add another layer of complexity to what is already a difficult challenge. For example, imagine how a college senior, about to enter the job market, may have reacted when Pepsi launched a television commercial invoking the contentious Black Lives Matter movement and featuring Kendall Jenner. The company came under intense fire almost immediately, and many of the student’s peers chimed in on social media to mock and boycott Pepsi.
Despite their best intentions, companies like Pepsi sometimes underestimate how different the millennial generation is. Born in the late 1990s, their formative years are defined in part by 9-11, the 2008 market crash, and the elections of Barack Obama and Donald Trump. A recent study shows that they are more politically engaged than other generations of college graduates, and yet their approach to activism is quite different.
They express their political views through social media and other nontraditional channels. And they seek less separation between their work and home lives than that of previous generations. Instead, they want their jobs to provide opportunities to solve important social and environmental challenges..
Insights Right from the Source
To understand how the current generation might react to companies’ political activism, a group of Drexel students invited graduating seniors from around the country to take a brief online survey on their awareness of companies taking political stands, and when such stands influenced their job search.
Their sample (419 participants) came from over a hundred universities including Harvard, Penn State, Stanford, Texas A&M, and University of California. Participants represented a cross-section of the country’s student population: 45% report a GPA of 3.5 or above, 19% attend a top 50–ranked university, 55% are women, 11% are ethnic minorities, and 78% major in either business or one of the STEM fields.
How Much Do Millennials Really Care?
The research team began by looking at awareness. They found that 68% of respondents said they were aware of a company having taken a stand, and 72% reported that they would be likely or extremely likely to try to learn more about a stance or statement made by a company.
In terms of the potential influence on their job search, a full 69% said a company’s political stand would be “likely” or “extremely likely” to influence where they send a job application, and 74% said it would be likely or extremely likely to influence whether they would accept a job offer.
When the team looked more closely at the coveted group of students with a reported GPA of 3.5 or above, responses were even higher; a company’s political stand would be likely or extremely likely to affect their decision to apply for a job (72%) and to accept a job offer (79%; see Figure 1).
Figure 1: How Students are Influenced by Corporate Political Activism During the Job Search
When participants ranked the political issues they care about most, gender equality, race relations, and health care topped the list (Figure 2). Surprisingly, free trade, the issue that will perhaps most directly impact workers in the decades to come, was consistently ranked at the bottom of their priorities.
Figure 2: Top-Ranked Political Issues for College Graduates
One might think that college students are most concerned with whether the company’s stand matches their own. However, when asked what factors were most important to how they would react to a political stand, participants placed this as the third most important. The two most important factors were that the stand be communicated respectfully and that it appears to be genuine. This held true no matter how we cut the data—by college major, GPA, or top 50–ranked universities.
If your company is hiring college graduates this year, the lesson is clear. That talented applicant you have your eye on cares about your company’s politics. They don’t demand that the company necessarily share their political views, but they do seek a workplace with respectful and genuine dialog on issues that are important to the country and to the world. In short, companies should feel freer to express political opinions than they have in the past.
So, make your political statements. Let the millennials know what you stand for. And keep in mind that they’re listening for sincerity, respect, and truth. In the words of this generation: Stay woke.
About the Authors: Kallie Rogers, Sanjana Mehrotra, Erin Maguire, Rajeshwari Elangovan, and Conor Brosnan are graduating seniors at Drexel University. They are advised by Daniel Korschun, the Stephen Cozen Research Scholar in Marketing, and Associate Professor.