THE INC. LIFE

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings Shut Down Peter Thiel For Supporting Trump (And It Was a Big Mistake)

There’s a big difference between undermining a company’s operations and having an unpopular opinion.

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BY Erik Sherman - 11 Aug 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Facebook directors Reed Hastings, who is also CEO of Netflix, and well-known Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel, star in a political preference controversy publicly revealed yesterday. Apparently, Hastings slammed Thiel for supporting Donald Trump last summer, calling it "catastrophically bad judgment" and "not what anyone wants in a fellow board member."

This comes on the heels of Google firing the engineer who internally distributed a manifesto called Google's Ideological Echo Chamber. Any mix of politics and business can be a dangerous brew.

The two cases, though, have some big differences. The short view: Google was right to fire the engineer behind the manifesto, but not for the reason many assume. And while Hastings was admirably up front about his feelings toward Thiel, he was wrong in thinking their political differences were enough to disqualify the latter from a position on the board.

At face value, both cases seem to be about the same thing: whether a politically correct culture in tech companies, in a drive for inclusion and fairness, tries to drive out anyone who isn't in lockstep. (The irony is that for all the political correctness, a lot of high tech has remained heavily biased toward white men.)

The case of the Google manifesto

As Lisa Abeyta wrote on Inc.com, one could argue that Google might not have developed the outlets and mechanisms for people who did not hold the "approved" views for discussion. As she put it:

In many ways, the Google Manifesto is a cry for help, a plea that someone in leadership should address the uncertainty and unhappiness being felt by some individuals - even as the company makes this badly needed shift towards a more inclusive culture.

The point is valid and important. Homogeneity in thought is bad in a company. Differences in views are important to creativity and innovation. At the same time, companies that want to regiment the thought of employees are crossing an ethical and managerial line and heading down a slippery slope. Private lives should be that.

The issue with the manifesto writer, as recently exited former Google manager Yonatan Zunger noted, is that the guy revealed some fundamental misunderstandings about software development and published his points in a way that made him virtually unemployable in the company. As he wrote:

Essentially, engineering is all about cooperation, collaboration, and empathy for both your colleagues and your customers. If someone told you that engineering was a field where you could get away with not dealing with people or feelings, then I'm very sorry to tell you that you have been lied to. Solitary work is something that only happens at the most junior levels, and even then it's only possible because someone senior to you--most likely your manager--has been putting in long hours to build up the social structures in your group that let you focus on code.

The manifesto writer essentially argued the opposite, that the work should be about solitary practice. The traits listed as "female" in the manifesto are the ones primarily responsible for good problem solving. More importantly, the way the engineer published his points argued "that some large fraction of your colleagues are at root not good enough to do their jobs, and that they're only being kept in their jobs because of some political ideas," as Zunger wrote. It harmed the company, and the guy should have known the ramifications. "Do you understand that at this point, I could not in good conscience assign anyone to work with you?" Zunger added.

The engineer had made himself unemployable by Google. That took immediate and greater precedence over whether his observations were valid (my quick spin through the document suggested that they weren't -- let's remember that women literally invented the concept of programming and were its first major practitioners) or if Google was acting like the thought police.

Hastings versus Thiel

Now to the current issue at Facebook. Both Hastings and Thiel are on the company's board of directors and were last summer before the election. According to the New York Times, here's the content of the email Hastings sent Thiel:

I appreciate that we can disagree and be direct with each other. I have our board Gordy feedback session tomorrow. I see our board being about great judgment, particularly in unlikely disaster where we have to pick new leaders. I'm so mystified by your endorsement of Trump for our President, that for me it moves from "different judgment" to "bad judgment". Some diversity in views is healthy, but catastrophically bad judgment (in my view) is not what anyone wants in a fellow board member.
I continue to experience you as very honest, well informed, and certainly very independent.
No response is necessary, I just didn't want to say this stuff behind your back.

I can't tell you what a "Gordy feedback session" is, but would suggest that Hastings was greatly mistaken in his reaction toward Thiel. Not in terms personal convictions, but in the application to business. As an independent board member, Thiel isn't part of Facebook's daily operations. He's not going to disrupt how the staff works.

 

Perhaps Thiel's backing of Trump had grievously harmed Facebook in a way that one could document and prove. Then Hastings would have a point, keeping the good of the company in mind. Instead, he took exception to Thiel's preference in political candidate at a time before the election actually happened.

Who gets to decide what political viewpoints are allowed and which are not? If Hastings had supported Clinton, Thiel might have though the choice to be equally ill-considered. So, do you kick both men off the board because each disagrees with the other's choice?

The First Amendment applies to governments, not to companies. But a business, particularly one that is publicly held, should exhibit great restraint in enforcing a broad requirement of cultural, political, and social views. If someone does the work and takes no actions that can reasonably be argued to cause harm, you shouldn't be policing his or her thoughts or views. As Mark Zuckerberg said in March in defense of Thiel, "[I] personally believe that if you want to have a company that is committed to diversity, you need to be committed to all kinds of diversity, including ideological diversity."