Leadership Free Speech and Gay Rights

by Helen Whelan

​I’ll admit I’m a little sensitive to bias. Who isn’t when you’re on the receiving end?

In this case, it’s that perception of you that guides invisible decisions with very visible results.  If a hiring manager doesn’t like women, Asians, blacks, gays, (pick your distinction) and you come in the door and you’re one of those, you could find yourself rejected for your next great gig or promotion. (You definitely would have dodged a bullet but it hurts nonetheless).  It’s tough enough to win based on facts, but when perceptions creep in, how do you fight that? As much as we try to be data-centric and take these biases out of our decision-making, they creep back in with a vengeance.Mozilla

I  think that’s why the controversy around Mozilla’s CEO, Brendan Eich hit such a nerve with me. Eich has just stepped down from a very short-lived stint as the CEO of Mozilla because of the controversy around his support of Proposition 8 that would have banned same-sex marriage in California. People have argued for his right to free speech and others have said he’s on the wrong side of history, discriminating against gays and their right to be treated fairly and equally as heterosexuals.

It may be because I run a leadership development video training business and all-things leadership fascinate me. I work with some very well-intentioned folks who try to guide their organizations to make fair decisions on talent. But, in this case, it’s also because I spent a large part of my early years as a TV reporter covering business and leaders.

So, when I hear people say he has a right to free speech, I don’t take that lightly. Of course, he does!  BUT…

When he’s a CEO in a leadership position, there’s the added layer of responsibility to the people he leads. They have entrusted their careers to him and his organization and will be mining his words and actions for what effect they’ll have on their next promotion or opportunity. Wouldn’t you?  Would a gay employee think s/he would get a fair chance at a promotion knowing their CEO supports a ban on gay marriage? Would that employee want to hide the fact that s/he’s in a same-sex marriage?

There are some who believe he could have separated his personal views from his actions in the workplace, but would you trust your career to that? What if he had said he doesn’t believe black and white people should be able to get married? Just insert the group with your own description. How would you feel working for an organization with a leader who thought your personal rights should be restricted?

As a reporter or citizen of the U.S., I know how much we all benefit from free speech. We’re allowed to state our opinions and enjoy the right to “agree to disagree.”  But, when you mix a leadership role into the equation, you no longer can do or say what you want or feel. You now have a layer of responsibility to employees, vendors, or, even people who don’t work for you.  If you still want to exercise your right to free speech, go ahead. But, don’t be surprised by the results if you’re perceived to be biased.

Helen Whelan is the founder of Success Television, a leadership development media company. She is a passionate advocate of using media to empower people in their journey of personal and professional growth . You can follow her on Twitter @SuccessTV.

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