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What Gurbaksh Chahal's Firing Says About Us

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GURBAKSH CHAHAL
Charley Gallay via Getty Images

by Anna Redmond

When RadiumOne's CEO lost his job after a domestic violence incident became public, a speedy but simplistic general consensus formed.

Domestic violence: bad. Boards who acted to remove malefactors: good.

The swiftness with which Chahal's world fell apart was particularly intriguing given the height of his success. He was the quintessential Silicon Valley wunderkind: a first generation American, a self-made millionaire by age 25 turned philanthropist, and according to Oprah herself, a most eligible bachelor. Just Google his name, and Chahal is shown grinning beside an equally ebullient President Obama.

Yet, within days of the news of his crime becoming public, the media was calling for his head, the Disrupt conference dropped RadiumOne as a sponsor, and as the final coup de grace, Chahal's board removed him from his role as CEO.

Case closed... except for Chahal, perhaps, who took to the Internet in his own feeble defense, claiming that the victim brought it on herself only to expunge his tweets and blog posts days later as the public furor only grew.

Everyone has been asking questions: Why did it take the board so long to act? Why was Chahal able to plea down such serious allegations? When will we see the tape of the assault?

At Hippo Reads, we explore questions that inspire debate through the lens of academia. In keeping with that, the questions we've been asking are a little bit different. What is relevant for us is not what happened behind closed doors on August 5th, but what the repercussions of that event mean -- and more importantly, what they say about us.

What type of private wrongdoing warrants the firing of a CEO?

That the board fired Chahal is not surprising. Media furor was only growing, and partners and customers were dropping the company in spades, and the prospective IPO was suddenly in question.

The nuance of the question, however, is not so much why Chahal was fired, but how we define the threshold for firings of this type.

Asked differently, what was it about the domestic violence incident that triggered such a strong reaction? Had Chahal been guilty of another crime -- drunk driving, flouting drug laws, or immigration fraud -- it is likely the board would not have reacted in the same way.

In April of this year, founder of Iron Data Jeffrey Smock, was arrested for the beating of a motorist during a traffic dispute. The assault was severe enough that bystanders were concerned the victim may not have survived. Smock's arrest made very small waves in the news, and nobody argued that Smock should face professional repercussions.

After all, Chahal is, if not in good, then in ample company. Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich was forced to step down when his support of a 2008 anti-gay marriage campaign became news. Clippers owner Donald Sterling was banned for life by the NBA after racist comments he had came to light, and is coming under pressure to sell the team. While neither racism nor discrimination based on sexual orientation are criminal offenses, they are social issues that inspire moral repugnance against their offenders. They represent not only wrongdoing against an individual, but against a group.

Is it morally right to hire or fire people based on crimes committed?

It's debatable whether Chahal was fired for the assault itself or for the fact that he had entered a guilty plea. Indeed, the board knew about the situation and chose to sit on it for 10 months. They've cited the admirable presumption of innocence doctrine as the reason for the delay -- but one has to ask, how would they have acted if the story had broken earlier, and they'd spent 10 months dealing with sidelined business deals and partners dropping off.

Here's what makes the issue thorny. Firing (or not hiring) on the basis of criminal history is the only form of discrimination still legal in the United States. Companies are allowed to run background checks and say they're not hiring criminals. Job applications can't ask you if you're pregnant, but they can -- and do -- regularly ask if you've ever been convicted of a crime.

As Michelle Alexander poignantly argues in The New Jim Crow this is problematic because our legal system does not punish equally. We've long known that Americans of color in general, and Black men in particular, bear the brunt of draconian drug laws and unequal enforcement. The result is that the legal discrimination keeps swaths of the population out of work and out of housing. And it is this Catch-22 -- keeping a steady job is often a condition of parole, but finding one with a criminal record is almost impossible -- that contributes to recidivism and high crime rates among the post-prison population.

I'm not suggesting Chahal is a victim of this dynamic or that his future is at risk. It would be silly to argue that he had anything except the best legal counsel, support, and advice. Although his career may have taken a hit, his lifestyle certainly won't.

But the problem with high profile cases like these is that they can seem to justify similar treatment for others -- even though they may not be as privileged as Chahal.

And while US law doesn't forbid terminations for reasons of criminal conduct, the office of Unemployment Benefits adds an interesting element. If you were fired, they say, you may still be eligible for unemployment. Committing a crime makes you ineligible if the crime was connected with your job -- such as destruction of company property, a DUI while on company business, or assaulting a coworker. In essence, it seems to imply that if your crime was not connected with your job, the Office of Unemployment doesn't care.

So does a domestic violence conviction suggest that you'll be a bad CEO?

This is an uncomfortable question, to say the least, but deserves to be asked because it's valuable to parse out the true reason behind the firing. Was it preventive or punitive? That is to say, is this a character flaw that will produce poor leadership? Or, is this a punitive measure -- a case of ostracizing a person whose morals the public finds repugnant, no matter whether or not this plays a (direct) role in Chahal's ability to lead?

Researchers have shown that many CEOs and entrepreneurs have psychopathic tenancies (that's why my co-founder and I don't have CEO titles). Moreover, as most domestic abuse and crisis centers report, abusers rarely take their abuse outside the domestic sphere. "Most abusive men get along very well with others, and are often considered charming and charismatic by everyone -- except their partner and children," one crisis center explains.

And, here's another curious study -- it turns out CEOs who spend time publicly promoting their dedication to ethics and corporate responsibility are actually more likely to behave in ways that are socially irresponsible. Enron once had unprecedented levels of corporate philanthropy, and just a few years before the Deepwater Horizon spill, British Petroleum touted its safety record as the best in the industry.

If this data seems to point to Chahal being a decent CEO in spite of his criminal history, the timeline of his termination also supports that. The information about his decision to plead guilty was not news to the board. If their concern was only the presumption of innocence, they could have fired him the day the guilty plea was entered. Why then, did they choose to wait until the public outrage grew and forced their hand?

Was the decision to fire Chahal more about us than about him?

Such a swift reaction to public pressure by the board is a sign of changing times.

When I was fresh out of college in 2004, and an analyst at venture firm, I took it as a given I'd be the only woman at any event. I spent that first year fending off unwanted advances. My fellow (male) analysts were busy networking and learning from the experience of others. I was anxious to find a mentor outside my firm who could help navigate a venture career. One such opportunity seemed to present itself -- but after we'd spent a perfectly professional lunch discussing deal flow, he tried to kiss me.

We've come a long way in 10 years. We've witnessed a more engaged dialogue about women's issues. Colleges are taking flak for their poor handling of sexual assault on their campuses. President Obama and Vice President Biden are recruiting notable men to star in PSAs about domestic violence and sexual assault.

The world has changed, and Silicon Valley is changing with it. Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In has sparked a much-needed dialogue about making corporate leadership more available to women. Organizations like Girls Who Code have sprung up to create diversity in what once was a boys-only tech club.

Seen in this context, Chahal's termination is a statement -- not just to Chahal himself, or the company's employees or partners or stakeholders. It is a statement in support of women who are becoming an important constituency in Silicon Valley -- who are building companies, running venture funds, and whose voices are joining together and being heard.

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with contribution by Andrew Jing and Kaitlin Solimine of Hippo Reads

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