3 questions for CEOs to ask themselves before weighing in on racial injustice

Before making any public comment, take a hard look at the policies and practices in your organization.

Merck's Ken Frazier is one CEO who has spoken out about racial injustice. (Photo credit: Getty Images)
Merck's Ken Frazier is one CEO who has spoken out about racial injustice. (Photo credit: Getty Images)

In what has been described as a “heartbreaking and painful week” for America, many corporate leaders are assessing whether to express their views on the violence and injustice that is affecting communities across the country.    

For some, the need to communicate is motivated by their own experiences with racial inequality. For others, it is driven by a sincere desire to live up to the expectations of employees, customers and other stakeholders. Whatever the reason, addressing emotionally charged topics requires sensitivity, skill and self-reflection, as well as careful preparation to anticipate the tough questions. In an increasingly polarized society, striking the right tone is no easy feat and failing to do so may have unintended negative repercussions. 

How can a leader know whether and when it makes sense to opine on social issues like racial injustice? Before weighing in, consider the following:

  1. Does my organization reflect the ideals and values I am promoting?

Leadership by example is the cornerstone of credibility and accountability. Before making any public comment, take a hard look at the policies and practices in your organization and whether they are aligned with the ideals and values you want to address. If the answer is no, use this as an opportunity to pair your perspective with a statement about the internal changes you are making to bring your organization closer to its goals. This exercise in accountability may not generate headlines, but it will create a deep well of goodwill and send a strong message to those closest to your organization that you care enough to “walk the walk.” 

  1. Am I willing to commit to action to further the social goals I am championing? 

Expressing outrage is as valid a message as any, and it may be just what is called for in the moment; but talk, as they say, is cheap. If a leader can support his or her words with action, the message becomes even more powerful. If your community is struggling in the aftermath of protests, you may be able to contribute supplies, products or other resources to those in need, or to organize programs that facilitate honest dialogue between police officers and citizens. Set goals and implement metrics to track progress on your efforts to promote diversity and inclusion. Consider supporting organizations that work in furtherance of social justice and racial equality as part of your company’s philanthropic initiatives. If possible, think of ways to support employees taking time off to volunteer with organizations that champion these goals, and commit to doing so yourself.  

  1. Is this a one-off communication or would I be willing to talk about my organization’s commitment to racial inequality in the context of the company's overall ESG platform?

Leaders must often choose to focus on those social issues that are most relevant to their stakeholders and where their organization can have the biggest impact. With a thoughtful, responsible and measurable ESG program in place, a leader’s commentary about racial inequality can be put in the context of the organization’s commitment to fair and equitable practices. 

Renee Soto is cofounder of Reevemark.

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