April 7, 2014

What Recruiters can Learn from Mozilla’s Mistake

Banana PeelIt was only a matter of time: yesterday, April 3, 2014, Brendan Eich resigned as CEO of the Mozilla Corporation. Since naming Eich CEO less than two weeks ago, Mozilla has been mired in trouble: OKCupid urged users to boycott the Firefox browser, and three board members resigned for what may or may not have been Eich-related issues.

What caused the turmoil and eventually lead to Eich’s resignation was not a problem of capability, but a problem of culture. Eich donated $1000 in support of California’s Proposition 8, a measure which sought to ban gay and lesbian marriages in the state. OKCupid and countless other commentators and members of the general public called out Eich’s anti-LGBT stance, pushing for boycotts of the company’s products.

Eich wasn’t unqualified for the role of CEO. He co-founded Mozilla and created JavaScript, two major achievements that most of us would kill to have on our resumés. All signs pointed to Eich having the skills and knowledge necessary to run the Mozilla Corporation successfully. But that just goes to show how truly important it is to consider workplace culture when filling roles — especially such high-profile roles as CEO.

The Culture in the Building

In an interview with The Guardian, posted only a day before his resignation, Eich announced that he had no intentions of stepping down. He said he did not believe that his personal views were relevant to the quality of work he could do at Mozilla: “So I don’t want to talk about my personal beliefs because I kept them out of Mozilla all these 15 years we’ve been going.”

Eich has a point: despite his beliefs about marriage equality, he did create JavaScript, which “powers much of the [I]nternet,” as The Guardian points out. So there may not be any associations between workplace performance and personal beliefs.

But there are undeniable associations between workplace culture and workplace performance. The Great Place to Work Institute points out that companies whose cultures land them on Fortune’s list of the 100 Best Companies to Work for have average annualized stock market returns of 11.80 percent. Compare this to the Russell 3000’s average of 6.41 percent and the S&P 500’s 6.04 percent. While it’s difficult to say how, exactly, culture and performance are related, we can see these trends. We know there’s something there.

And a prominent leader, like a CEO, contributes a lot to workplace culture: “Managers, often more than other people, contribute in the shaping or reshaping of meanings and ideas held by the people they interact with,” writes Mats Alvesson, author of Understanding Organizational Culture.

It’s clear that, in this case, Eichs was contributing negatively to Mozilla’s culture. In a blog post about the resignation, the company states: “Mozilla prides itself on being held to a different standard and, this past week, we didn’t live up to it. We know why people are hurt and angry, and they are right: it’s because we haven’t stayed true to ourselves.”

The message, though tactfully delivered, is clear: Eich’s beliefs were not good for the company.

The Culture of the World

By giving Eich the CEO role, Mozilla was asking for culture problems in the workplace. Past experiences predicted as much. But Mozilla was also courting a culture clash between the company itself and the outside world — something that they should have been able to see coming.

As societal acceptance of LGBT people grows — according to a Gallup poll last year, 52 percent of people in the U.S. support marriage equality — stances like Eich’s are increasingly frowned upon by the public. How could Mozilla not have foreseen the bad press and the boycotts, the wrath of the Internet and the ire of celebrities like George Takei?

Mozilla Executive Chairwoman Mitchell Baker remarked to Re/code, “I am wondering how did I miss it that this would matter more when he was the CEO.” Baker and the others responsible for Eich’s selection missed this fact because they made a crucial miscalculation: they thought Eich’s achievements were far more important than his fit with company culture. That’s an especially egregious mistake to make when filling a role that will be, in many ways, the public representative of your company. The public doesn’t care if he wrote JavaScript: if people think your CEO’s a bigot, they’ll make sure you know that, and they’ll make sure you pay.

Few recruiters will ever be charged with filling a role as high profile as Mozilla’s CEO, but there’s a lesson in here for all of us to take away: company culture matters, and it can matter a lot more than we may think. And company culture isn’t just the culture inside the building; it’s also a matter of how the public — which, more often than not, consists of your customers — sees you. So when recruiters select candidates who fit in with the office culture, they need to be sure those employees fit in all ways: in how they act within and outside of the building.

Read more in Organizational Culture

Matthew Kosinski is the managing editor of Recruiter.com.