business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

On Tuesday, MNB took note of how Mozilla's new president, Brendan Eich, was under fire because in 2008 he donated $1,000 to a campaign supporting a legal ban on gay marriage. We wrote that Eich had gone out of his way to separate his personal views from those of his employer, and has pledged to maintaining a supportive and inclusive workplace. But this has not stopped some employees from publicly complaining about his views via social media, and the company has lost three members of its board of directors (though it downplays the connection to Eich's views).

And, the New York Times reported that "OKCupid, an online dating site, made it difficult for people using Mozilla Firefox to access its service, stating unequivocally that this decision was a result of Mr. Eich being an 'opponent of equal rights for gay couples'."

Well, it took less than a week for this all to shake out. The Wall Street Journal reports this morning that Eich has stepped down from his job.

"I have decided to resign as CEO effective today, and leave Mozilla," he wrote. "Our mission is bigger than any one of us, and under the present circumstances, I cannot be an effective leader."

Mozilla's executive chairwoman, Mitchell Baker, wrote in a blog posting, "We have employees with a wide diversity of views. Our culture of openness extends to encouraging staff and community to share their beliefs and opinions in public. … But this time we failed to listen, to engage, and to be guided by our community."

Now, let me be clear (especially to new MNB readers who may not be aware of my views). I profoundly disagree with Eich's position of six years ago.

But I think it is important to point out that while the company's chairman says that his employees "have a diversity of views," there apparently is one view that is not tolerated.

In 2006, gay marriage was not legal in California, so he was not advocating any sort of violation of the law. He was expressing an opinion, as was his legal right. I could even argue that it was a moral and ethical imperative to express that opinion, even if I disagree with him and find the opinion to be intolerant.

The question I keep asking myself is, if I were an employee at Mozilla, could I work for Eich?

And the answer I keep coming to is yes - if he seemed to be a good leader with a strong vision, if he seemed to be inclusive and fair, and if he were committed to equality for gay employees (which he pledged to do, by the way).

Would I feel that way if I were gay? I don't know. Maybe not.

On the other hand, I might feel like the political, social and cultural tides are with gay marriage, and that there is some comfort to be found in that. And, as long as Eich were a good CEO, I could work with him.

But I'm not gay. So I can't really answer the question.

(Most of the people I've worked for in my life were people with whom I disagreed on a whole host of issues. It was fine. On the other hand, maybe there's a reason I've been doing my own thing for most of the past 20 years…)

I know there will be readers with strong opinions on both sides of this issue. And even as I write this, I'm trying to figure out whether my feelings are inconsistent with what I was writing back during the Chick-fil-A contretemps.

What I said then was that while company executives have a right to express their political/cultural opinions, they needed to understand that there could be collateral damage … that, for example, they risked alienating existing and potential customers who might decide never to eat at Chick-fil-A again.

Maybe that's what happened with Eich and Mozilla. Maybe the sense was that his political/cultural opinions would harm the brand in irreparable ways.

I'm not sure where the line is anymore. If I didn't have a job in which I'm essentially paid to state my opinions, I'd hate to think that I'd have to avoid expressing opinions if I wanted to keep my job.

I am troubled by the idea that a person's past opinions about an issue not related to business could derail his or her career, and by the speed with which it happened. There was so much momentum, it is hard to imagine that there was any sort of reasoned, rational discussion.

But maybe the real lesson is about how fast all this happened, and how transparent Eich's opinions were and are. That's something every business leader has to keep in mind … even if it means that they will have to restrain themselves from engaging in public discourse out of fear for their careers.

I also know this. I've expressed so many opinions here over the years that there is no way anyone would ever hire me. Not that I'm looking for a job, but it certainly highlights the fact that I'd better keep doing this until I get it right.
KC's View: