Mozilla’s same-sex marriage of inconvenience: a CEO falls as freedoms collide

The forced resignation of Brendan Eich as CEO of Mozilla, the US open-source software movement-cum-corporation best known for its Firefox web browser, over his opposition to gay marriage, may be shrugged off as an “only in America” moment, but it’s only a matter of time before an Australian business leader is caught in a similar bind of being held to account by employees and shareholders for his or her personal views.

Eich had been CEO for just two weeks when he resigned on April 3 over revelations that in 2008 he donated $US1000 in support of the Proposition 8 ballot to ban same-sex marriage in California. (The proposition was carried 52% to 48% but, after much bitter litigation, was struck down by the US Supreme Court in June 2013.)

There is much to fear in such a trend that makes no distinction between personal views and the professional, conscientious and lawful discharge of one’s duty in the workplace. By every account, Eich was precisely such a leader. There was nothing in his history at Mozilla to suggest animus towards gay employees or the gay community; no accusations of Eich ever being less than totally committed to equality and diversity at Mozilla.

And “history” is the operative word when it comes to Eich’s association with Mozilla. This was no red-neck CEO who had somehow found himself in charge of a company that prides itself on a “culture [that] reflects diversity and inclusiveness … [and] equality for all”.  

Eich is a legendary and respected figure in the US and international software industry. As well as creating the programming language Javascript, he was a co-founder of Mozilla in 1998 and prior to his appointment as CEO was Mozilla’s chief technology officer. 

An issue still in play

Without question the Proposition 8 campaign gave voice to homophobic and extreme elements, but that does not make Eich homophobic.

That said, it is true that there is a fine line here. At what point does opposition to same-sex marriage become a demonstrably anti-social position to hold, as opposed to simply being politically incorrect?

While the momentum for same-sex marriage is unstoppable the fact is that it remains an issue still in play and for many people it is an issue of deep personal and moral conviction. For Eich, with an unblemished record of ethical conduct as a business leader – saving some explosive revelation yet to surface – it is manifestly unfair to deem him unfit for high corporate office because of his personal views about same-sex marriage.

The lack of tolerance for divergent opinion in the same-sex marriage debate is the weak link in the otherwise courageous and epoch-defining campaign for marriage equality. The pressure on Mozilla to sack Eich, to which it succumbed, on the basis of his modest financial support for the anti-gay marriage lobby, is not a proud moment in the same-sex marriage movement.

By all means Eich should have been called upon by his board to explain himself and to demonstrate, irrespective of his sound record, that his private views would have no bearing on his conduct as CEO. But he was given no such opportunity.

His resignation also reveals the inconsistencies of the US’s much-vaunted constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression, in practice if not in law.  

Mozilla found itself in a muddle as it sought to reconcile its commitment to free speech while also distancing itself from Eich. Executive chairwoman Mitchell Baker tried to explain it this way: “Mozilla believes both in equality and freedom of speech. Equality is necessary for meaningful speech. And you need free speech to fight for equality. Figuring out how to stand for both at the same time can be hard.” So is figuring out what Baker is going on about.

Could this happen here?

So what would happen in Australia if the CEO of a major company was to found to have privately supported opponents of same-sex marriage?

There is every chance that an Australian CEO would, in the same circumstances, face the same social media and gay marriage lobby backlash as Eich, and very likely the same ultimate fate. 

Australian CEOs, unlike their US counterparts, have traditionally been reluctant to engage in public discussion about public policy issues, unless their interests are directly affected. This is at odds with the growing community expectation that business leaders should play a more prominent and responsible role as community leaders – after all, the decisions and practices of our big companies have huge impacts on society. The reluctance of CEOs to be seen as “political” also robs the nation of their experience, intelligence and wisdom as the nation faces a time of immense change and challenge.

If ever there was a time for business leaders to engage with the community at a much wider level, and to lend their voice to the big issues of the day, this is such a time. But given the experience of Eich, who would blame Australian CEOs for keeping a low profile?

It need not be an issue as contentious as same-sex marriage to set off a career-ending social media firestorm. But one imagines that Australian business leaders are in no hurry to discover where social media activists, not to mention fickle investors, draw the line.

 

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One thought on “Mozilla’s same-sex marriage of inconvenience: a CEO falls as freedoms collide

  1. Another thoughtful piece Leo.

    I agree that being forced to resign for personal contribution to a political campaign is unfair on Eich. As a private citizen, he is entitled to argue for a change to the same-sex marriage law in California. Meanwhile, as a chief executive, he must adhere to anti-discrimination and other existing laws in that state. By all accounts, he was successfully making this distinction in practice.

    However, I disagree with the idea that business leaders in the US and here should exploit their positions to influence public policy, especially in areas that do not directly affect their employers’ interests. They might have “experience, intelligence and wisdom” when it comes to running a business, but it does not follow they have anything more to contribute to a policy debate about, say, the age pension, that does their lowest employee.

    Indeed the idea that running a business is a template for running any other organisation is how we ended up with schools paying consultants tens of thousands of dollars for “change management” advice, and universities addressing students as customers. And it is how we will be end up with a Commission of Audit report recommending slashing welfare entitlements that, frankly, the wealthy business leaders that dominate the Commission do not themselves need.

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