In the days after a white supremacist/Alt-Right march and violent protests in Charlottesville, Va., some property/casualty insurance carrier executives chose to speak loudly to employees against what happened.
Others decided remaining quiet was the way to go.
CEOs and executives from carriers including Chubb, The Hartford, CNA and American Family addressed their companies via internal emails, LinkedIn messages or closed-circuit video, making a concerted effort to reassure employees that they valued diversity and inclusion and rejected the hate on display in Charlottesville that had garnered global attention.
Not every carrier chose this course, however, something that is not unusual in an industry that typically tries to remain apolitical. A USAA spokesperson, for example, said the insurer did not address the matter with employees but declined to elaborate further. One company contacted by Carrier Management—Nationwide—declined to discuss the matter either way. (Carrier Management contacted a total of seven carriers for this story.)
Racism and Response
The Aug. 11 white supremacist nighttime march at the University of Virginia dissolved into violence, as did the subsequent rally and violent aftermath a day later in downtown Charlottesville that left one woman dead and many injured after a white supremacist marcher plowed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters. All of it brought bigotry, racism and white supremacy to the national conversation in ways not seen for years. President Donald Trump’s response—which appeared to blame both the white supremacists and counter-protesters equally for the violence—inflamed tensions further.
Within days, Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier, who is African-American, resigned from the president’s American Manufacturing Council in protest against Trump’s response. Many other executives from multiple industries followed suit, but few others mentioned Trump specifically by name.
Speaking out on social issues is not necessarily a mandatory action for CEOs in situations such as this, Richard Levick, founder, chairman and CEO of the international crisis communications firm Levick, told Carrier Management.
“It is a company-by-company decision,” he said. “But it is increasingly expected…We are going to be called upon as CEOs to show a level of leadership which we didn’t think was in our job description but appears to be increasingly required.”
Levick said that businesses of all stripes—including insurers—are “uniquely in a position of a Faustian choice now,” noting “they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t” when it comes to speaking up during a controversy, especially in the Trump era.
“They are used to administrations of both political stripes providing a level of comfort during difficult times,” he said. “Instead, they are faced with an administration that adds to the level of risks. It literally puts businesses in a strikingly challenging position. Do they stand up for their values, for diversity, for what they have preached for decades, or do they stand with the president?”
Levick said CEOs have not had to address issues of race and bigotry to this degree since the Civil Rights battles of the mid-1960s.
“The challenge in some ways was lesser then, because the call for diversity and acceptance and integration was new,” Levick said. “Now, it is about a business being on the front line, trying to protect what they worked so hard to achieve.”
Standing Up For Diversity, Without Mentioning a Certain Someone
Carriers that spoke out about the Charlottesville attacks offered strong words of support to their employees for diversity but didn’t mention Trump by name.
Chubb President and CEO Evan Greenberg sent an email message to the insurer’s global employees focused on “the temper of the national discussion” in the wake of Charlottesville, urging government and business leaders to equally stand up to bigotry and fight for a better society.
“It is important that leadership at all levels, in both government and business, speak out clearly and unambiguously against racism, intolerance, bigotry and hatred, particularly at moments like this,” Greenberg wrote. “There can be no ambiguity or shades of gray about what we stand for as individual citizens, as a country—and as a company. We are a nation of immigrants built on the fundamental principles of freedom, equality, tolerance and acceptance.”
Greenberg added in his employee message that “there is no room in our country nor in our company—our village—for racism, intolerance, bigotry or hatred.”
The Hartford CEO Christopher Swift addressed Charlottesville for his employees on an internal blog, a place of information where he often covers topics including diversity and inclusion, according to a spokesperson.
“The violent attack has affected many of us who believe that hateful behaviors have no place in society…and are incompatible with our values,” Swift said in an excerpt shared with Carrier Management. “As a company that is committed to doing the right thing, it is important that we speak up against hatred and bigotry. The diverse experiences, beliefs and expertise we bring to work fuel the collaboration, innovation and excellence needed for an engaging workplace and better business outcomes.”
According to the spokesperson, the blog entry also thanked employees for what they do to support an inclusive culture at The Hartford and encouraged them to reach out if they had any concerns.
Jack Salzwedel, president, chairman and CEO of American Family Insurance, spoke to his employees and the public about Charlottesville via an Aug. 16 statement published through his LinkedIn account.
“As American Family Insurance CEO, I want to reinforce that we are fully committed to a diverse and inclusive environment for our people. All people,” he wrote. “We have zero tolerance for discrimination of any kind every single day.I find even more comfort and pride in the work of our LGBTA, multicultural, veterans’ and women’s business resource groups—and all our employees and agents—who help us build this inclusive culture at our company.”
Salzwedel noted that the insurer was to gather that week for its annual leadership event, adding that “a major emphasis of our time together will be on culture and the benefits a diverse and inclusive environment have on our customers and on us.”
At CNA, Chief Diversity Officer Joyce Trimuel addressed Charlottesville by way of an Aug. 16 simulcast broadcast to employees around the world. A spokesperson shared some of her remarks with Carrier Management.
“The recent disturbing events and violence that occurred are a stark reminder of the hatred present in society,” Trimuel said. “Today, I tell you loud and clear that there is no place for hatred, intolerance, bigotry or racism in our business, our communities, our country or around the world.”
A Multiparty Balancing Act
Levick said that businesses have plenty to gain by speaking with their employees and even the public when controversy hits, even indirectly. But there are many parties to consider.
“The balance is communicating clearly to your employees that your values, your commitment to diversity stands strong,” Levick said. “You also have to communicate to the extent that it is part of your corporate brand. You have to communicate that to your customers and you have to communicate that to your shareholders.”
At the same time, he said, companies still have their agendas to pursue in Congress and with the president.
“On the other hand, because you still want to work with the president on taxes, infrastructure and whatever else the GOP hopes to achieve in this Congress,” Levick said, “you do not want to attack the president, certainly by name, and you want to avoid in any way making it a personal attack on the administration or office.”
Not mentioning Trump specifically in response to Charlottesville amounts to “risk reduction,” Levick said.
Still, he argued that CEOs will likely speak up more often on social issues in the months ahead.
*How did your company address the Charlottesville racist violence with your employees? Let Carrier Management Editor Mark Hollmer know at firstname.lastname@example.org.