A Test of Tolerance

Brendan Eich Photo by: Gen Kanai

Watch your politics—whatever they may be—because even in business they may come back to bite you.

Brendan Eich, who just last month became CEO of Mozilla, maker of the Firefox web browser, resigned this week after facing a boycott from a dating website and a general outcry over his personal beliefs. Eich’s sin: to have donated $1,000 six years ago to a campaign in support of Proposition 8, a California measure banning same-sex marriage.

The incident, the New York Times observed, “is likely to intensify a debate about the role of personal beliefs in the business world and raise questions about the tolerance for conservative views inside a technology industry long dominated by progressive and libertarian voices.”

Gay blogger Andrew Sullivan condemned the pressure on Eich to step down as a “hounding,” while others have applauded his exit. “Right now we’re in a world where you have to not be a bigot if you want to be an effective leader of an organization like Mozilla,” wrote Slate’s Will Oremus.

And what might Peter Drucker think of this episode? Actually, it’s hard to say.

On the one hand, he likely would have been sympathetic to someone caught behind the times—in this case, an executive such as Eich who perhaps failed to anticipate that same-sex marriage would go from unimagined to increasingly ubiquitous in our society. There’s also no evidence that Eich was discriminatory in any way in the workplace. In his own day, Drucker kept friendly relations with those considered reactionaries, as well as with those considered radicals.

In short, Drucker was tolerant, and the campaign against Eich does not seem tolerant (even as it rails against Eich’s supposed intolerance), and on that level Drucker would likely have been dismayed by the protests against him.

On the other hand, one reason that Drucker’s book Concept of the Corporation so agitated Alfred Sloan, the head of General Motors, was its assertion that companies have a place in society—and therefore have responsibilities beyond those of minding their own business.

Sloan, who was a staunch opponent of President Roosevelt and a backer of the right-wing “Liberty League” in the 1930s, believed that personal interests should have no bearing on the business. “A ‘professional’ for him was not a man without interests, without convictions, without a personal life,” Drucker explained. “He was a man who separated his interests, his convictions, and his personal life from the task.”

Drucker maintained that such a position, while principled, was unrealistic. So many businesses, he saw, were under attack because of “their failure to accept ‘public responsibilities,’ and for their insistence on limiting themselves to being ‘professional.’” And companies must accept that society is always ready to accuse them of “impacts” that may or may not be their fault.

As Drucker wrote in Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices, “What only yesterday seemed harmless—and indeed even popular—suddenly become offense, a public outcry, a major issue.”

What do you think of the pressure on Brendan Eich to step down?