By Kathryn Dill 

Business leaders across industries are speaking out about social injustice and racial inequality in the wake of George Floyd's death at the hands of police and the protests in dozens of U.S. cities the fatal event has sparked.

Goldman Sachs Group Inc.asked bank employees to have conversations outside their comfort zones about race and discrimination. Peloton Interactive Inc. committed to donating $500,000 to the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund. Washington, D.C.-based restaurant chain &pizza said it would give workers extra paid time off so they can participate in protests.

In part, the flood of messages reflects how quickly the world has changed for chief executives and big businesses, who up until a few years ago tended to steer away from hot-button issues. Now, many leaders of industry say more consumers and employees expect brands and businesses to have a point of view -- and share it.

"For those in pain. For those in this fight. We stand with the black community against racial hate and injustice," said Michael Lastoria, CEO of &pizza, which has locations from Massachusetts to Virginia. Starting this week, the chain's employees can take three days off for activism, on top of their regular paid vacation time.

In a blog post titled " I can't breathe," Mark Mason, Citigroup Inc.'s chief financial officer, wrote that he debated whether to speak out. Mr. Mason, who is black, wrote that he realized he had a duty to address the situation.

"Even though I'm the CFO of a global bank, the killings of George Floyd in Minnesota, Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky are reminders of the dangers Black Americans like me face in living our daily lives."

Larry Fink, chairman and CEO of BlackRock Inc., the world's largest asset manager, sent staff an email -- also published online -- over the weekend questioning BlackRock's own internal dynamics. "As a firm committed to racial equality, we must also consider where racial disparity exists in our own organizations and not tolerate our shortcomings," he wrote.

Goldman Sachs chairman and CEO David Solomon urged employees to " check in with each other, and be willing to have conversations that may take us outside of our comfort zone."

Tim Ryan, the U.S. chairman of accounting and consulting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, said it was essential for managers to talk specifically about the deaths of George Floyd and other people of color with their employees. These kinds of frank conversations have been a hallmark of his nearly four-year tenure at the company. Mr. Ryan had already been convening staff-wide conversations about race when Botham Jean, a 26-year-old PricewaterhouseCoopers senior associate, was shot to death in September 2018 by an off-duty police officer while watching football in his Dallas apartment.

In a series of messages sent over the past several days, Mr. Ryan encouraged PwC employees who find the news difficult to take time off, if needed. "I think it's important to talk about," he said. "Not to simply say, oh, it's in Minnesota. This affects everybody."

Peloton founder and chief executive John Foley said in a message to customers sent Saturday, "What's become clear to me is we must ensure this is an anti-racist organization." He defined that as actively changing thinking daily and dismantling systematic structures that keep racial inequality alive.

"We may never be perfect, but we're going to do better every day," Mr. Foley wrote.

In an appearance on CNBC Monday, Merck & Co. chief executive Kenneth Frazier said business has the means to eliminate some of the inequities in society. In 2017, Mr. Frazier, who is black, quit a manufacturing-advisory council to the Trump administration in protest of the president's failure to quickly condemn the white supremacists who marched and engaged in violence in Charlottesville, Va.

Speaking Monday, he said that what the African-American community saw in the video of Mr. Floyd's arrest, in which an officer kneeled on his neck, ignoring his pleas that he couldn't breathe, is that he was treated as less than human.

George Floyd, Mr. Frazier said, "could be me."

"Fundamentally what business can do, whether you want to call it reparations or not, I think we can step up to address in today's world the continuing results of years and years of racial prejudice in this country," he said. "We're not asking people to give everybody handouts, but we need to acknowledge that there are huge opportunity gaps that are still existing in this country."

Mr. Frazier also emphasized the role of unemployment in exacerbating the current unrest. "Joblessness leads to hopelessness," he said. "Hopelessness leads to what we see in the streets."

Chip Cutter and David Benoit contributed to this article.

Write to Kathryn Dill at


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

June 01, 2020 18:36 ET (22:36 GMT)

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