Employment and Jobs

Leveraging Small Business Owner’s Perspective on Job Quality: Utilizing A-B Partner’s Research Findings in the CDFI Industry

April 30, 2024  • Bryn Morgan

The shifting landscape of workforce dynamics amidst the COVID pandemic, combined with a competitive labor market, have increased recognition of the need for good jobs. Unfortunately, low job quality remains a persistent barrier to economic stability and mobility for many in the United States. This is particularly true for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) and women workers, many of whom are employed by small- and medium-sized businesses. At the same time, small business owners report struggling to attract and retain employees, creating an opportunity to discuss job quality as a tool for recruitment and retention. In light of this challenge, the Aspen Institute Economic Opportunities Program (EOP) — with generous support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — launched the Shared Success demonstration, which leverages the trusted relationships of community development financial institutions (CDFIs) to improve job quality for workers while helping small business owners strengthen their businesses.  

A crucial step to improve the quality of the jobs in small- to medium-sized businesses is gaining a deeper understanding of the perspective of these business owners themselves, taking into account their unique values and motivations. To explore this question, EOP collaborated with A—B Partners — a small, BIPOC-led communications and research firm — to understand business perceptions of job quality, identify strategies to encourage the adoption of job quality elements, and define recommendations to involve financial institutions in this process. 

The central research question at the heart of this multistage research project was, “What messaging strategies encourage small businesses to become interested and learn about job quality improvements?” A–B Partners used specific methodological techniques to understand the motivations and values of small business owners. They ensured a particular focus on the perspectives of BIPOC and women business leaders by intentionally sampling diverse participants. The businesses represented a variety of industries and geographic locations, and nearly 70% had fewer than 10 employees, reflecting the small business size of those involved in the Shared Success demonstration.

A–B Partners’ first phase of research involved metaphor elicitation, a qualitative method that asked business owners to select images and sounds, along with answering interview questions, to attempt to reveal their underlying motivations. For example, when business owners were asked to find images of an ideal employee, they often chose pictures of clocks that emphasized punctuality and dependability. Researchers took this to indicate that they largely value duty and conformity from their employees. More generally, metaphor elicitation found that small business owners often feel like imposters, isolated, and beholden to their business with little support. While these business owners strive to gain further autonomy and positively impact their community, they are particularly challenged with attracting and retaining employees. Ultimately, their business challenges coalesce, leaving the owners feeling both disempowered and unable to offer quality jobs. 

Based on these findings, A–B Partners dove deeper into what really works when appealing to small business owners about the potential to implement job quality improvements. Their next two phases of research employed message and content testing, techniques that survey a broad range of participants to identify messages that are most persuasive and effective. They found that certain messages and images are more persuasive than others. In particular, emphasizing how providing high-quality jobs can allow business owners to delegate tasks to their employees and build a good reputation for their businesses in their community were most successful.

Using the findings across these three phases of research, A–B Partners created narratives and identified images that resonate specifically with the challenges and opportunities that small business owners confront. Surprisingly, starting conversations with the business case or improved financial performance can often be alienating. By contrast, messages that appeal to a small business owner’s autonomy and control, and to their status in their community, are most effective. BIPOC business owners are especially motivated by narratives that connect job quality with building status in the community. Similarly, the images that are most effective highlight connectedness and community, showing images of happy workers, employers, and customers all together. 

These findings significantly inform the CDFI industry and other stakeholders invested in improving job quality. Reflecting on this research, the Shared Success grantee CDFIs spoke of how A–B Partners’ research can be pivotal in shaping their own outreach to the micro- and small businesses they support. Many noted how incorporating A–B Partners’ practical advice will help get more small business clients through the door and interested in the potential of job quality. 

As Shared Success works to create new norms and narratives around job quality, the perspective of small business owners is essential, especially for the financial intermediaries that work to support them. These findings remind us that financial arguments alone are insufficient when advocating for improved job quality. While the business case for good jobs remains important, we must also continue to emphasize that job quality is central to the well-being and quality of life of workers, business owners, and entire communities. 

For more detailed findings, please see the Job Quality Narrative Playbook.

About the Author

photo of Bryn MorganBryn Morgan is a research associate at the Aspen Institute Economic Opportunities Program. 


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The Economic Opportunities Program advances strategies, policies, and ideas to help low- and moderate-income people thrive in a changing economy. Follow us on social media and join our mailing list to stay up-to-date on publications, blog posts, events, and other announcements.