Former Merck boss Ken Frazier wants CEOs to speak out

Ken Frazier, former CEO of pharmaceutical company Merck, had a message for CEOs during Fortune’s CEO Initiative conference on Tuesday. As companies contend with polarizing social politics, and ready for the upcoming 2024 presidential election, Frazier, who was for many years one of the few Black CEOs on the Fortune 500, asked that leaders not be afraid to stand up and speak out.

“CEOs don’t want to get in the middle of every political dispute, especially given how divided our country is,” Frazier told Fortune CEO Alan Murray in a panel alongside OneTen CEO Debbie Dyson. He added that American democracy consists of a certain series of principles and conditions. “It is my view that while I don’t want to drag my company into a political dispute, that when those kinds of principles are not being upheld by our elected officials, it becomes the responsibility of the citizens … and CEOs obviously are among the most influential citizens.”

Frazier, who co-founded the equal opportunity employment organization OneTen, appeared with Dyson to talk about DEI efforts and the organization’s goal to close the opportunity gap for Black talent and anyone applying for jobs without a four-year degree. 

In 2017, while still CEO of Merck, Frazier resigned from President Donald Trump’s American Manufacturing Council in protest of statements Trump made following white supremacists’ demonstrations in Charlottesville. 

Frazier resigned as Merck CEO in 2021 after an 11-years at the company that brought it one of its most lucrative drugs in cancer immunotherapy drug, Keytruda, and saw Frazier play a role in defending the company from an avalanche of lawsuits. He is now the chairman of health assurance initiatives of venture capital giant General Catalyst, and is attempting to change how companies approach hiring in order to open doors wider for Black and underrepresented talent to land at companies, many of which say diversity of thought and talent is key to the success of business.

“As an organizing and governing principle, most people would agree that race neutrality or color-blindness is a good thing for a multicultural, multiracial society,” Frazier says. “On the other hand, most people would acknowledge there are still vestiges of the way this country has run for 400 years that explain why unemployment for African Americans and why life expectancy and why, after years of redlining, neighborhoods are segregated.”

Frazier told a personal anecdote from his childhood to make his point, noting that he and his sister were the youngest of nine siblings, and they “came along in the birth order when the social engineers in Philadelphia decided to make race-conscious decisions about who went to what school—they call that school desegregation.” As a result, they were both bused to better schools. “I happen to think that that obviously benefited me, and it might have benefited Merck, too, but the fact of the matter is, I don’t think that that actually hurt somebody, creating that opportunity for me. It wasn’t at the expense of somebody else.

Taking Frazier’s advice on standing up for principles is proving challenging for several Fortune 500 companies right now. Companies such as Bud Light owner Anheuser-Busch and Target have recently had to deal with right-wing backlash for wading into what some see as politicized social debates, supporting LGBTQ individuals.

Target, in August, said its sales declined during the fiscal second quarter, the same period in which it was fending off right-wing boycotts over LGBT-themed clothing and merchandise. And Bud Light lost its title as America’s favorite beer following a boycott that stemmed from a promotional Instagram post from transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney.

Still, Frazier says, leaders should feel empowered to speak out when issues buck against their and their company’s values, and especially with younger generations watching companies’ every move.

“There are a lot of young people in our companies and they’re watching us. And when we give up on the things that we’ve said we’re our values for decades, why would they believe us,” Frazier says. “My whole thing is pick your spots and ask yourself, do you have a right to speak to this issue? Does your company’s values speak to this issue? And if so, I think CEOs should not be cowed into not speaking.”

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