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How the CEO of Allstate decided to weigh in on abortion could be a lesson for all chief execs

July 5, 2022, 8:51 PM UTC

It’s getting harder for corporate leaders to weigh in on “pressing social issues” without drawing fire. But not weighing in has its own, possibly insurmountable, risks.

Abortion is one such issue.  

Since Roe v. Wade was overturned, a wide array of companiesDisney, Tesla, Amazon, Target, Meta, and Starbucks, among them—have extended benefits allowing employees to seek abortion care wherever it is still available. It’s a deal breaker, say Republicans. “After Dobbs, the alliance between social conservatives and neoliberal corporatists in the GOP is over. Look no further than the mega-corporations caving in to the far-left and offering to cover all abortion-related expenses for their employees,” Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri told CNN.

One of the companies that recently expanded its abortion-related benefits is Allstate.

I recently caught up with the insurance company’s CEO, Tom Wilson, at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Wilson joined Merit Janow, ​non-executive chair of Mastercard and a law professor at Columbia University, Dylan Tyson, president, Prudential Retirement Strategies, and Richard Edelman, CEO of Edelman, a global communications firm, and me for a public panel on trust—who has it, who doesn’t, and why it matters.

You can watch the video here.

We started with Richard Edelman’s fascinating analysis of the annual Edelman Trust Barometer, which had some grim findings for anyone who wasn’t a CEO. (Spoiler: This year, business is the most trusted entity around the world, while government and the media are the least.)

Then, I asked Wilson—a member of the most trusted class of individuals according to the Barometer—to dig into how Allstate makes decisions about when and how to lobby publicly on big issues. (You can find it at about the 18-minute mark.) He said the company needed to develop a framework to analyze the dizzying waves of requests. “They’re all important. But… how many letters are you going to sign before you’re just another name on another 100 letters?” he said.

Allstate’s societal engagement framework has four filters, but it starts with a big question about values. “Whatever someone is asking us to do has to be consistent with the way we run our business, which is no surprise,” he said.

The first filter is about customers–will it help Allstate do a better job serving them? If it makes it past that one, then the next filter explores institutional knowledge. “Do we know anything about it?” The third one is about agency, he says. “Can we actually affect any change?” Finally, they discuss the impact on employees and any impact on the company’s reputation.

The framework is about a year old now, and Wilson says they’ve run some 104 different issues through it. Recently, three big categories have made it through for broader engagement: Climate change and risks to property; data security and privacy; and equity—all of which are related to the knowledge and influence they already have. (I’ll be digging more into the equity piece in future reporting.)

I asked about how they used the framework to address Roe v. Wade.

“We said, do we want to go make a public stand and lead on it?” Wilson said as he walked the crowd through the filter. “It doesn’t help us with our customers. I said we don’t sell health insurance. And, you know, there’s a wide range of opinions. We don’t really know that much about it.” So, the decision was made to focus on it as an employee issue. “We cover it in our health care plans, as we always have. And if they can’t get that kind of treatment where [they are]…we pay for them to go someplace else. But we chose not to lead on that one.”

While this may be a distinction with little meaning for lawmakers like Sen. Hawley, it remains to be seen how much longer mega-corporations can stay away from broader advocacy on abortion, gun safety, and other vital issues.

But for Wilson, it’s been important to do the work and show the rationale.

“Climate change and wildfires are right up our alley—it burns down our customers’ houses, we know a lot about it. We can get things passed, and work with legislators and regulators to get that done.” It’s work employees want them to do. And they immediately looped in major shareholders—like BlackRock, State Street, and Vanguard—all of which needed to know how Allstate leadership is now making these decisions. “We said,’ hey, this is what we’re doing, right?’ So if somebody complains and wants to do a consumer boycott because we’re not doing something about teaching standards in Florida, recognize it doesn’t make it to our filters.”

That’s what drives trust, he says. “If you stand for everything, then you stand for nothing.”

Ellen McGirt
@ellmcgirt
Ellen.McGirt@fortune.com

To read more on trust, sign up for Fortune’s latest newsletter, The Trust Factor. Every Sunday my colleague Jacob Carpenter delves into the role trust plays in business and the ways companies are getting it right and wrong, with actionable tips and valuable advice from leaders across industries. Sign up here.

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Ashley Sylla.

On point: Your summer reading list, part one

We asked, you answered! Thank you.

We asked you to contribute to a crowdsourced list of fiction books, from any era, to give our imaginations a boost and offer a legitimate break from the news of the day. The assignment:

  • Recommend a book that helped you feel seen in a particularly powerful way.
  • Or, a book that was written by someone very different from you, and which has inspired you or has helped you better understand the lived experience of others.

There are over 35 submissions and growing, thanks! The first installment of ten is below.

Submissions have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Someone recommended Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset.

  • Here’s why: “It gave language and resonance to the complicated way I (and I'm sure the rest of the world as well) experience love: the most beautiful gift we can give and receive; a powerful emotion that fuels the world (for better or worse); a hole that can only be filled if we are vulnerable and open ourselves to receiving additional wounds; a greed that can drive us to madness.”
  • The heart-grabbing moment: “When Simon Darre gives voice to the hate we feel towards those that we've betrayed, that we cannot find forgiveness for those who remind us of our baseness.”

Chloe Benson, Inclusion and Diversity Specialist, Marsh McLennan recommended Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

  • Here’s why: “This is the first fiction book I’ve read about the refugee experience and it made a huge impact on my understanding of the lived experience of refugees. The protagonists were dynamic and imperfect in their interpersonal relationships and I think it made their stories so much more compelling. This book demonstrated the complexity of Arab cultures, the importance of familial relationships, and the cumulative impact of displacement on individuals.”
  • The heart-grabbing moment: “When we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.”

Avia Jaye, singer/songwriter, educator, and activist recommends, A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini

  • Here’s why: “I just will never forget how moved I was for months and years after that book, set a world away from my lived experience in so many ways. It changed me forever and unlocked a new level of my existence as an empath that has been irreversible in the best way. It also felt like the farthest distance I traveled via fiction though that couldn’t have been true. That’s how it felt to me, all consuming, poignant, far, and intimate.”
  • The heart-grabbing moment: “The whole thing.”

Someone who is a managing partner, recommends The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye

  • Here’s why: “This book was historical fiction about India.  It was so vividly described it piqued my love of reading stories about other cultures and helped form my respectful curiosity of other cultures.  I read this book as a teen growing up in the Bronx.  I am now 69 years old.”
  • The heart-grabbing moment: “There is a scene where the main character is traveling away from home and the terrain is described that was breathtaking; snowcapped mountains in the far distance with the sun setting behind them making the sky appear purple.” 

Lance Mellon, a gardener, recommends: Mountain Man by Vardis Fisher

  • Here’s why: This book has some non-politically correct aspects to it. It was written in 1965. It was the book that Robert Redford and Jeremiah Johnson the movie were based from–but it’s very different than the movie. It will take you far, far away to another time and world. I'm about halfway through but as much as I am up all by some of the writing in it it is very fascinating. It shows the life experience of another time. It is very eye-opening. It will not make me feel seen. But it has opened my eyes to the lived experience of others [in] a big way.
  • Heart-grabbing character: “Lotus the Mountain Man's young Indian wife who he dearly loved but…[spoiler removed]… is the one that we will all will love very much.”

Suzanne McGee recommends Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

  • Here’s why: “It was amazing to walk alongside Lauren Olamina amidst the chaos of the world. I would gladly follow her sensible wisdom, sense of humor, and philosophy. The Audible version is perfect for this story.”
  • Heart-grabbing moment: “I was hooked from the start.”

Renee Bushkin, a general manager, recommends Wild Magic by Tamora Pierce

  •  Here’s why: “It's a coming-of-age story that highlights during, unconventional women in positions of power.”
  • Heart-grabbing moment: “Too many to list. This series had me laughing, crying, and grinning like an idiot.”

Jaye Lopez Van Soest, Sr. Director of Development, recommends Lost & Found by Kathryn Schulz

  • Here’s why: “Loss of things big and small can be pivotal, sending you on another path, searching for answers to questions you didn’t even know to ask until faced with loss.”
  • Heart-grabbing moment: Schulz quotes a passage from James Baldwin’s Nothing Personal about falling in love, how things you didn’t know existed/ care about previously suddenly become incredibly important because of their connection to the person you love. Schulz referenced it in relation to a long-distance—how “love will simply have no choice but to go into battle with space and time and, furthermore, to win.” I think it’s relevant for relationships that didn’t have to contend with distance. How much of yourself—your likes, passions, etc.—are subsumed by the reality of a relationship and your partner’s likes and passions? Hopefully, you’ll have shared passions, but for as much as something is “found” in a relationship, there’s just as much that can be “lost.”

Sam Williams, who works in internal communications and D&I, recommends Summer, by Edith Wharton

  • Here’s why: A young girl getting pregnant, having to navigate that with an abusive guardian and a lover who is older and finds another. In this time of lost rights for women to decide their future, it reminds me that women have always struggled to decide their own fates. The ending is a bit “a good man will save you” but the complex story I liked.

Karen Driscoll, Racial Equity & Inclusion Director, recommends All This Could Be Different, by Sarah Thankam Mathews

  • Here’s why: The novel publishes in August and I can't wait to read a story that details an experience of youth, immigration, and love from a queer lens.
  • Heart-grabbing character: I'm excited to delve into the character of Sneha and how she comes of age in a difficult time.

Parting words

"When I was a kid and read science fiction, the science fiction available for kids at the library that I went to was all boys books and you get tired of reading boys books where the girls just kind of sit on the sideline and cheer the boys on and I think one of the things I wanted to do when I began writing my own was […] being the one who’s actually doing instead of the one who’s standing off to one side watching.”

Olivia Butler

This is the web version of raceAhead, Fortune’s daily newsletter on race, culture, and inclusive leadership. To get it delivered daily to your inbox, sign up here.