The Brendan Eich/Mozilla firestorm was over just as quickly as it started, but lots of questions remain. While tens of thousands of supporters of LGBT rights took to the Web to voice their outrage over Eich’s appointment, promising boycotts and even signing a petition to force his resignation (which ultimately achieved its goal), others have expressed concern over the ethics of pressuring a CEO out of office over his political beliefs. What if the tables had been turned and Eich had donated to a LGBT-friendly cause?
So now the question is, can a CEO have opinions?
The cold, hard truth: yes, but not any opinions. A CEO can have the “right” opinions.
Let’s not even pretend that the controversy surrounding Eich had anything to do with the fact that he put his name behind a very hotly contested issue. Google co-founder Sergey Brin donated $100,000 to an anti-Prop 8 campaign. Obviously, no one is calling for his ouster.
Brendan Eich donated to a proposition that was meant to revoke rights that had been granted to same-sex couples in San Francisco to get married legally. The proposition was also meant to forever ban such unions from ever being recognized as legal marriages.
Since we live in a country where the majority doesn’t automatically get to decide the rights of a minority group, the Prop 8 decision went all the way up to the Supreme Court, where it was overturned, catalyzing a chain reaction throughout the country as other states’ attempts at banning same-sex marriage have been shot down.
Additionally, the SCOTUS ruled recently that capping campaign and political contributions amounts to an infringement on citizens’ (and corporations’) free speech rights. Ergo, if a political contribution is the same as free speech, then what Brendan Eich did amounts to hate speech. Plenty of people will disagree with this premise, because plenty of people (gay marriage opponents) don’t believe that legislation that infringes on the rights of gay people is the same as legislation that infringes on the rights of black people or women. (True: gay people have not been systematically and institutionally used as a source of free or cheap labor in the U.S. while being told they’re only 5/8th human, but considering the fact that Arizona very nearly passed a law that would’ve made it perfectly legal for a bar or restaurant to refuse to seat a gay person, the parallels really aren’t as far off as some would like to believe.)
A CEO can privately think that black people and women don’t deserve the same rights as others, but as soon as that CEO puts his or her money and name behind a campaign that would limit the rights of his/her black or female employees, then it’s a whole new ballgame.
But should it get a CEO fired? If you fire the CEO for holding discriminatory views, shouldn’t you also fire the receptionist? Or the janitor?
No, and you know why? Because the receptionist and the janitor don’t carry the bulk of the weight in shaping company culture. They also aren’t in charge of appointing executive hires, or executing new company policies. If a CEO says “black people are lazy” or “women can’t code,” that CEO is probably going to (intentionally or not) create a workplace that is unfriendly toward women and minorities.
This hurts business. Studies have found that among U.S. organizations studied, those with the highest number of women on their executive boards also have the highest financial performance. Other studies have found that as businesses diversify their workforce, they also capture more market share (because obviously). And businesses that don’t enact inclusive policies that encourage diversity often see higher turnover rates (because OBVIOUSLY).
Eich wasn’t just wrong in his support for legislation that would infringe on the rights of his own employees—he was a threat to Mozilla’s bottom line.
The Mozilla Corporation is a subsidiary of the Mozilla Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to promoting open source software. The foundation does this through “radical inclusion”—and even Eich noted that Mozilla is launching several new campaigns to bring in more women and minorities who might not have previously had access to resources that would allow them to hack on Mozilla.
The whole point of Mozilla is to make the Web more open and inclusive—a point that Eich made several times during his various interviews and his blog post. If a sizable portion of Eich’s own employees felt excluded by his political stance on gay marriage, then Mozilla clearly doesn’t walk the talk.
But he didn’t even have a chance to prove himself, some have argued. Eich promised to check his personal beliefs at the door. Everyone has to do that in order to function at work, don’t they?
Yes, but not everyone is the head of a large, very visible company. Nor does everyone have the power to set corporate policy, at which point—no, no one is truly capable of separating their personal opinions from their work/public lives. It’s highly doubtful that Mozilla’s super LGBT-friendly HR policies would be so progressive if Eich had been in charge when they were proposed.
Equally important, though, is the fact that Eich was the face of the company. If a company claims to be LGBT-friendly while being run by a Prop 8 donor, how many LGBT hackers are going to feel welcome and invited?
So, can a CEO have opinions? Yes. But those opinions must be in support of his or her employees. A CEO who donates his money and name to a cause that would infringe on the rights of his employees—whether he’s in opposition to same-sex marriage, housing fairness for minorities, or equal pay for women—is a CEO who is acting against his own company, which makes him a bad CEO.