Listening with Respect

ken frazier

Ken Frazier

Former CEO, Merck

As CEO of Merck, Ken Frazier didn’t shy away from taking a position or making a statement that he knew some employees might disagree with. But whenever he did so, he also listened to their views.

In one case – resigning from President Trump’s American Manufacturing Council – his actions didn’t directly affect his employees. In another case – mandating COVID vaccination – it did. But both times, listening was key. Frazier reflected on these and other experiences in a conversation with Dean Bill Boulding at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.

These kinds of decisions are an increasingly visible – and expected – part of the CEO experience. They are also a focus of the Dialogue Project at Duke, which explores ways of reducing polarization in society through business.

Frazier resigned from the American Manufacturing Council to protest Trump’s response to the violence in Charlottesville in August 2017. Not long after, at a meeting with employees at a Merck plant in rural Virginia, he said, “My job is not to tell you what to believe about politics. You are entitled to your political views; I want to hear your political views.”

Then he listened.

“My employees wanted me to understand that Donald Trump represented to them things other than the statements he made about Charlottesville,” he said. “In other words, they wanted me to say to them what I did say to them, which is, ‘I don’t judge you. I don’t think you’re ignorant. I don’t think you’re racist because you support Donald Trump. I think he was wrong about what he said about Charlottesville.’”

Frazier said that kind of conversation presents an opportunity for people to share what they believe without fear of getting blamed or canceled. “Business is one of the last places in our society where people can’t necessarily choose who they work and associate with,” Frazier said. “And I think it’s really important for business to create an environment where people can say what they believe and not be attacked for it.”

When Merck mandated COVID vaccination for employees, some of them objected. Rather than issuing the order and stifling discussion, Frazier asked Julie Gerberding, then the company’s chief patient officer and executive vice president, to visit Merck facilities to listen to employees’ concerns. “We wanted to say to them, it was a condition of employment at Merck to get vaccinated,” he said. “But we needed to do that in a respectful way. We needed to give people enough time to process the information. We needed to make sure that people understood that this was really about protecting the next person.”

Frazier began his career persuading juries as a courtroom lawyer. He then joined Merck, eventually becoming CEO, a position he held for a decade. Along the way he learned that persuasion only happens in an environment of respect. “It doesn’t help when people who consider themselves knowledgeable talk down to people who they consider to be less educated or less knowledgeable,” he said. “All that does is push people back into a corner where they personally identify with a point of view and they are not willing to change it.”

Although customers and employees increasingly expect CEOs to weigh in on political and moral issues, doing so risks alienating those who disagree. “I don’t know that there’s any way that you can win with everybody in a highly divided society,” Frazier said. “But my personal view is, you need to be careful about how often you weigh in on these issues. And you have to ask yourself honestly whether the position that you’re taking really is consistent with the company’s values.”

When Frazier decided to resign from Trump’s manufacturing council he issued a statement on Twitter, which read in part, “America’s leaders must honor our fundamental values by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry and group supremacy, which run counter to the American ideal that all people are created equal.” Before releasing the statement, he let the Merck board of directors know what he was planning to do and asked them if they wanted him to speak only on his own behalf or on behalf of the company, too. “And I am very proud to say that the board unanimously said, ‘we want you to speak to the company’s values, not only to yours,’” he said.

After Frazier issued his statement, the president tweeted out criticisms of Frazier and Merck. Frazier expected that, but it wasn’t an easy situation. “I was worried about the impact that it could have on my company, because the government is our biggest customer,” he said. “I also knew that many of my employees would not agree with it. But sometimes the issue calls you, and you have to do what you think is right.”

Editor’s note: Read more about how Ken believes business can be a force for good here.