The ousting of Brendan Eich as CEO of Mozilla seems to be a first in the history of American corporations. After just two weeks in the top job, Eich stepped down as chief of the company that makes the popular Firefox web browser. Though CEOs have taken heat for their positions on controversial issues—Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein has said the investment bank lost at least one major client because he holds the opposite view from Eich, in favor of gay marriage—none have ever resigned their posts as a result of public protest.
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Eich was apparently pushed out by the board. Yesterday executive chairwoman Mitchell Baker put up a blog post that said, “We know why people are hurt and angry, and they are right: it’s because we haven’t stayed true to ourselves.”
Eich’s departure came shortly after employees at Mozilla brought to light the fact that back in 2008, he had donated $1,000 to support Proposition 8, a California law that banned same-sex marriage (courts have since struck down the measure). That news made its way across Twitter and the popular dating site, OkCupid, which posted a letter saying “Mozilla’s new CEO, Brendan Eich, is an opponent of equal rights for gay couples.” It went on, “We would therefore prefer that our users not use Mozilla software to access OkCupid.” Though Eich apologized for causing “pain” and insisted he could separate his personal views from the way he ran the company, that didn’t wash with the board.
Since the Eich news broke yesterday, there has been a flood of opinion both for and against his move. Among those in favor: Sam Biddle, a writer at the online publication Valley Wag, who wrote, “Good for Mozilla, good for OkCupid, and good for everyone, really. Now let’s do racism next!” In the San Jose Mercury News, Michelle Quinn wrote, “[I]n this era of transparency, he didn’t do enough to save his job. He failed to realize that these days, the CEO of a tech company is more like a politician than a business executive.”
The answer to that question seems to be yes. I talked to two crisis communications consultants who said that the not-so-new reality in Silicon Valley is that if executives want to hold the top job, they can’t oppose gay rights. Paul Argenti, a professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business who is also a corporate communications consultant and the author of the textbook, Corporate Communications, regrets Eich’s firing. “We should respect the privacy of people to believe and do whatever they want,” he says. “Otherwise who is going to become a leader?” But, he adds, “If you have designs on being the CEO, you have to realize your private life is not as private as you think.” Though Argenti believes that Mozilla should have protected Eich’s right to hold private political views that conflicted with popular opinion, “he made a bad decision by not realizing this could happen.”
Eric Dezenhall, who runs a crisis communications firm in Washington, D.C., agrees with Argenti and goes a step further. “There is a very specific narrative today on certain issues and if you step an inch out of bounds, you’re going to get fouled or worse,” he says. “He stepped on one of the three great land mines: gay rights, race and the environment. You don’t have to have made flagrantly terrible statements to get into trouble now.” Though most people view corporate America as being right wing, contends Dezenhall, over the last three decades, companies have increasingly made public statements that show their progressive stripes.
There are exceptions: Chief operating officer Dan Cathy of fast food chain Chick-fil-A has made millions in donations to anti-LGBT organizations and has spoken out strongly against gay marriage. But the company is closely held and based in Atlanta, rather than Silicon Valley and Cathy has kept his job. DIY chain Hobby Lobby is in the news now for opposing a provision in the Affordable Care Act that requires company health insurance to cover contraception. But like Chick-fil-A, the company is based far from Silicon Valley, in Oklahoma City and its position isn’t held by a lone executive.
Though I am a strong supporter of gay rights and marriage equality and I thought Proposition 8 was a travesty, my first reaction to the Eich news was the same as Andrew Sullivan’s: If Eich wanted privately to support that bill, but didn’t discriminate against gay employees or advocate the company quit providing benefits to domestic partners, then he shouldn’t be fired for his views. But the news of the past day underlines the points made by Argenti and Dezenhall: We live in a time when it’s nearly impossible to keep private views private and as Quinn says, corporate leaders must realize that they are now subject to the same scrutiny as politicians, especially on radioactive issues like gay marriage.
A piece in today’s Wall Street Journal points out another practical reason that Eich’s private views could have presented a problem for Mozilla: the company is hoping to renew a major contract with Google, a company that strongly supports gay rights. The Journal talked to a Mozilla insider who said the deal might have been put in jeopardy by Eich’s leadership.
One more irony in the controversy: Mozilla, which grew out of Netscape, is made up of a nonprofit foundation and its taxpaying subsidiary. The organization develops open-source, free software relying on its own employees and a community of third-party developers. You would think that such an open, transparent set-up would invite tolerance of private beliefs that may run against what has become the mainstream. But that is obviously not the case.