PwC is trying to recover from tragedy this week in a way that every ethics and compliance professional should applaud: by asking employees to confront difficult questions about race and empathy in America, in a statement directly from the firm’s U.S. leader.

A risk assurance associate at the firm’s Dallas office, Botham Jean, was shot and killed on Sept. 6 by an off-duty Dallas police officer. The officer and Jean lived in the same apartment building; she apparently tried to enter his apartment by mistake, believed Jean was an intruder in her apartment, and opened fire.

Botham Jean

Jean was black. The officer, Amber Guyger, is white. She has been charged with manslaughter.

Jean’s death is awful, since he seemed to be a promising employee at PwC with a long career in risk management in front of him if he wanted. Then he was killed in an encounter that clearly raises questions about racial perceptions in America. Did Guyger see a black man, instinctively fear the worst, and open fire? Would she have done the same if Jean were white?

We can all ask questions like that about the facts of this case, or the numerous other cases of law enforcement shooting black individuals with murky rationale at best.

PwC wants to do something larger. Its U.S. chairman, Tim Ryan, circulated an email this week asking employees to contemplate the challenges black colleagues face in this country simply for being black, so that we can try to build better workplaces and a better country for all parties. Ryan’s email read in part:

“Emotions are raw not only in Dallas but across the firm. It is important that we all take time to understand the experiences our underrepresented minorities — and especially, in this situation, our black colleagues — experience in everyday life so that we can all be better co-workers, friends and allies.”

PwC also called on employees (and anyone else) to share memories of Jean on Twitter.

 

Employees did. There are scores (if not hundreds) of tweets under the hashtag #BeLikeBo, well worth reading. Here are a few:

 

The Hard Work of Ethics and Values

Ryan’s actions stick with me so much because they aren’t going to “solve” the social dysfunctions that Jean’s death brings to such painful light — but they are a step in the right direction, and many times, that’s what being ethical is. It’s about having faith that your actions will make a difference eventually, even when all around you at the moment is discouraging. So you take those actions anyway because you believe they’re right.

Timothy Ryan

Ethics and compliance officers understand that at the theoretical level. It’s the lesson we try to impart in every training course we roll out. It’s also a lesson that most people grasp and put into practice in their personal lives. Ryan is using his position as head of PwC to contemplate that lesson at the organizational level, too. He should. That’s what ethical leadership looks like.

After all, the easier path would have been for Ryan not to do this. PwC could have donated money to the family, published a respectful statement of condolences, and gone quiet. He took the harder path.

When Ryan calls for more conversation about race, “to understand the experiences our underrepresented minorities … so that we can all be better co-workers, friends and allies” — honestly, I’m not even quite sure what that means, or what that conversation should achieve. But it is a conversation worth having, if you believe in the ethical values that undergird our society.

Ryan used his leadership position to push PwC into having it. It’s a fitting tribute to the loss of a good person.

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