It's not every day a CEO faces a petition with hundreds of thousands of signatures requesting that she step down from her job. But for Reddit's interim chief executive, that day was Monday.
Until now, Ellen Pao has been perhaps best known for her gender bias lawsuit against venture capitalist firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (which she lost). Yet today she is again in the klieg lights, this time because the online community of Reddit users and volunteer moderators are revolting after she shut down several of the site's popular forums last week.
The protest has also included a relatively unusual petition on Change.org, one that's calling for Pao to resign. As of Tuesday morning, it had more than 200,000 signatures.
The petition, started four weeks ago, comes amid changes at the massive online discussion site under Pao's leadership. In recent months, she has updated the site's anti-harassment policies, as well as banned several "subreddits," or individual forums dedicated to topics such as fat-shaming.
Many users see such moves as a big improvement. But some others say the site should remain completely free, however ugly or dark the discussion. To them, Pao's actions raised concerns that she "overstepped her boundaries [and] that she will run Reddit into the ground," the petition read.
In addition, Reddit's moderators have reportedly been frustrated by the lack of communication and support that they receive for their volunteer work on the site. That frustration recently reached a tipping point when the company dismissed Victoria Taylor, an employee who was popular with these moderators, without any warning. It was like lighting "the fuse of a very large pile of dynamite," as one analysis put it in Slate.
Amid the outcry — not only through the petition, but on Reddit and elsewhere — Pao and others have apologized, jumping in on Reddit threads, having conversations with moderators and making statements to the media. On Monday afternoon, Pao posted a candid apology to the site's users about Taylor's dismissal.
"We screwed up," Pao wrote. "Not just on July 2, but also over the past several years. We haven’t communicated well, and we have surprised moderators and the community with big changes. We have apologized and made promises to you, the moderators and the community, over many years, but time and again, we haven’t delivered on them. When you’ve had feedback or requests, we haven’t always been responsive. The mods and the community have lost trust in me and in us, the administrators of reddit."
Yet even Pao's mea culpa hasn't stopped the petition's numbers from rising. A representative from Change.org said in an email that the only comparably sized petition for a CEO's removal came in September of last year, when signers urged Centerplate, a sports and entertainment catering company, to remove then-CEO Des Hague after he was caught on video kicking a dog. That petition reached more than 192,000 signatures before Hague resigned. The petition for Pao's ouster has so far reached 200,000.
Such petitions are very uncommon, according to Change.org. Aside from the ones against Hague and Pao, the next largest anti-CEO petition was likely against United Airlines chief executive Jeff Smisek over outsourcing and customer service complaints. It had fewer than 11,000 supporters.
One of the only other comparable examples in recent memory of a CEO pressured this way to step down was Brendan Eich, the former CEO of open-source web browser Mozilla. He resigned after an outcry over his donation to an organization that supported banning gay marriage.
Few companies however have users, customers or employees impassioned enough to speak out against the dismissal of a corporate leader. That job is usually left to investors.
Reddit may indeed be a different type of organization — one driven by a small corporate staff and a much larger community of unpaid volunteers, who are used to speaking their minds about nearly everything. Still, they may not ultimately be able to vote up or down on the CEO like they do on the site's content. A company spokeswoman said in an emailed statement that "the company’s position is that Ellen has the full support of the team."
This post was updated Tuesday morning to reflect the most recent number of signatures on the Change.org petition for Pao's resignation.