Today’s discussion: I may not believe in same-sex marriage, but my company does. Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich came under fire for supporting California’s Prop 8 before he became chief executive a few weeks ago. Then he abruptly resigned over the controversy. Should a CEO’s personal beliefs matter to an open allocation company, where authority and oversight are so minimal?
There are no two ways about it. Eich was right to step down. Even in an open allocation company like Mozilla, the beliefs of head employees do matter and can directly affect everyone in the community in awful ways. By donating to Proposition 8, Eich was indeed calling every LGBT employee at Mozilla inferior.
On the Riddle scale, Eich proved he would be get a score of one; tolerant people usually register a score of eight. If you are so repulsed by LGBT people that you are willing to give your money to deny them the same rights you have–I don’t care if it’s on your own time–how can you possibly believe you have the ability to lead your employees, many of who are LGBT, and motivate them to become the best they can be while expecting your known personal beliefs not to affect them at all?
I beg to differ with Michael. It’s not as though Eich made a public proclamation about his views on same-sex marriage while he was CEO of Mozilla–people learned about his views because the list of Prop 8 donors was public by law. How different would it have been if he had never donated money to support Prop 8, but still chose to believe privately that marriage is between a man and a woman?
This situation is vaguely reminiscent of when Marisa Mayer returned to work as CEO of Yahoo just days after giving birth to her son. The media made the move seem like Mayer’s deliberate proclamation to women everywhere that taking maternity leave was unacceptable as a successful, working mother. Yet, it was her choice to come back to work. And her position at a publicly traded company should have had no bearing on how her decision panned out in the media. But if she were an elected politician, the stakes would have been different, wrote Ruth Margalit in the New Yorker.
William Saletan points out in Slate that the very social liberalism that has protected LGBTQ employees in companies has now ousted a man whose views don’t align with the liberal agenda. No, he is not a minority, and no, he does not generally need society to fight for his basic rights. But, his right to contribute to Mozilla is just the same as anyone else’s.
Startups and tech companies often spout their “values”: affordable luxury! Privacy! Sustainable mayo! So when a CEO broadcasts an opinion that can damage those values-based reputations and divide users, then yeah, he or she should probably step down. Or at least remove themselves from public scrutiny, and keep those beliefs private. That’s not to say these people aren’t allowed to have opinions. But even beyond the techscape, PR nightmares like these have consequences. In this case, lots of Mozilla users are millennials, and according to Pew, nearly 70% of that group is pro-gay marriage. So a Prop 8-backing CEO probably won’t get Gen Y-ers to flock to Firefox and Thunderbird.
This is a case of pre-crime. Eich was forced to resign for what he might do: use his position as CEO of the Mozilla Foundation to discriminate against its LGBT employees or against members of Mozilla’s community. But nobody has produced evidence that in all the years since Eich helped found the Mozilla project in 1998, that he has done anything of the kind, or planned to do so.
The best commentary I have seen on the furore came from VentureBeat’s managing editor Jolie O’ Dell, who interviewed Eich shortly before his resignation and who also happens to be gay. “Personally, I don’t know or want to know why he made that donation because, like Eich, I don’t think it has any bearing on his performance as CEO,” says O’ Dell. “He is, in my own opinion, on the wrong side of history. He might be sparking the HR nightmare of the decade. And as unwilling a participant as he may be, he is nevertheless a real part of institutional homophobia, as are many of his peers in the tech CEO community. But he’s still a great technologist with a lot of good to do in the world.”
As professional technologists, as long as you share the same broad technical and ethical goals for a product and can work together with your team to reach them, that’s all that matters–not your private views.
The faces of companies are the men and women leading them. When you say names like Mark Cuban, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, the public associates these names with a brand, whether it be an NBA team, e-commerce behemoth, or social media kingdom. And by association, wielding that power makes chief executives themselves extensions of their companies.
In the case of Brendan Eich, he was both right and wrong to step down (after only two weeks in the position, to boot–although he did cofound Mozilla). Mozilla faced a PR nightmare here, and in their company blog, wrote that Eich left “for the company.” That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Mozilla can’t have a bigot for a CEO–that just doesn’t work today. The company was getting bashed by the supposedly open-minded tech community, ever ready to attack at the smell of fresh blood. But the manner in which Eich left, proclaiming that because the company is LGBT friendly he can’t stay, creates a soap box atmosphere, and as NPR suggests, a free speech issue. Mozilla choked on a PR bullet, the New York Times says. But when it comes to publicly traded companies controlled by industrious boards, inner-workings are more dictatorship than democracy, and Eich was likely asked to leave or be fired. Still, when an executive becomes an outer extension of their company, their speech is most definitely not free. And subject to ridicule, finger wagging, and either the chopping block or seppuku.