It is almost two years now since the violent clashes between alt-right protesters and counter-protesters at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Those bloody fights and racial taunting were pivotal in changing the views of Michael Corbat when it comes to how he leads Citigroup. Until then, as the CEO of one of the largest banks in the country, Corbat preferred to stay neutral on many political issues and social problems. But that changed on August 17, 2017.
In a memo to Citi’s 200,000 employees, Corbat expressed his opposition to the horrible events calling them a “vile and tragic affront to our values”, adding, “it is obvious to us that the hatred, bigotry, and racism which was on display can never be tolerated.”
Corbat says that at first, when the riots began, he assumed Citi employees understood the bank’s values. But, after considerable introspection and discussion with his leadership team, he decided it was important for him to speak up.
“I candidly, struggled a bit,” he says. “I would hope within our company that it’s obvious that we don’t stand or tolerate any of those. But I think in today’s age, it’s important for your people to hear it and to be reminded and for them to have the ability to say, ‘I know this is the way my company comes to work. I know the people I work with, this is what they stand for.’ And so in many ways I just wanted to be out there taking any questions off the table around a reaffirmation of who we are and what we stand for.”
Since then Corbat has increasingly been taking stances on prominent social and business issues. The bank has set restrictions, for example, on the sale of firearms to its business customers. Citigroup is the only American bank to disclose the pay gap between its female and male employees. It is also the largest affordable housing lender.
Corbat joined Citi 36 years ago, right after graduating from Harvard University. As he reflects back on his early years working in the bank, he describes workplace expectations as “come in, put your head down, do your job.” But he says today things have changed dramatically for everyone working at the bank, and especially for the chief executive at the top.
“In today’s age there’s an expectation of society, there’s an expectation of your employees, of your people, that we’ve got to serve the greater good,” he explains. “When you look at the challenges in the world today, whether it’s the environment or whether it’s affordable housing, we’re in a privileged position of being able to influence that conversation and hopefully, the outcomes.”