Guardian report on public opinion about job losses needs context

1 March 2021
What was claimed

Nearly half the population thinks the reason people lost their jobs in the pandemic was due to their own underperformance.

Our verdict

A survey found 47% of the population think job performance is an important factor in recent job losses, not necessarily the main reason.

“How can it be that nearly half the population thinks the reason people lost their jobs in the pandemic was due to their own underperformance?”

Last week, Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee claimed that nearly half the population think that the reason people lost their jobs in the pandemic was due to their own underperformance.

The article cites research from King’s College London which was also written up in the newspaper’s news section with the headline: “Job losses in pandemic due to performance issues, say nearly half of Britons.”

But the results are more nuanced than either article makes out. 

The study

A nationally representative sample of 2,000 adults were asked: “Some people have already lost their jobs as a result of the coronavirus crisis, and others are likely to in the coming months. How important do you think luck is in determining whether people lose their jobs at this time?”

Eight percent said “very important” and 23% said “fairly important”. 

Respondents were then asked: “And how important do you think how well people are performing at their jobs is in determining whether people lose their jobs at this time.”

Fifteen percent said “very important” and 32% said “fairly important”, totalling 47% who said it was an important factor.

Interpreting the results

Ms Toynbee frames this as nearly half the population thinking underperformance was “the reason people lost their jobs.” 

But 47% of the population thinking job performance is an important factor is not the same as 47% saying that it is the reason people lost their jobs, let alone that these people “blame job losses on unemployed people” as the headline reads. 

The survey didn’t ask a question which tried to capture what respondents thought were the main factors behind job losses, it only asked about the importance of luck and of job performance. 

In fact the first question takes for granted, understandably, that job losses happened as a result of the coronavirus crisis. 

Someone who thinks that, if job losses need to happen due to the pandemic, businesses are more likely to fire staff members on the basis of performance, than just by random chance, may have said luck was an unimportant factor in job losses and job performance was an important factor.

But that doesn’t mean they would necessarily blame people for their own job losses, especially given they have been asked a question which presumes these job losses are happening due to the coronavirus crisis, an event by definition out of the control of individuals and businesses.

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