One was forced out after an espionage scandal. One left after allegations of workplace discrimination. One left after employee protests. Read more to find out.
2019 saw a record number of CEOs depart – either forced out or stepped down from their roles. This year, also, a slew of notable CEOs have left their roles. But here are three notable CEOs that left in the aftermath of either scandals, protests, criticism, outrage or controversy.
Credit Suisse CEO Tidjane Thiam
Last year, Switzerland’s second largest bank Credit Suisse found itself in the middle of an ‘espionage’ scandal. The scandal unfolded in September 2019 when the bank’s former wealth manager Iqbal Khan confronted private investigators who were tailing him through Zurich. The observation on Khan started shortly after he left Credit Suisse for rival bank UBS, because of his longstanding rocky relationship with the bank’s CEO Tidjane Thiam.
Soon after, the bank admitted to the spying, and held its COO Pierre-Olivier Bouée responsible. Bouée was soon fired with no payoff. The bank, however, stated that Thiam was unaware of the spying operation, and that Bouée had acted of his own accord.
But soon after, other instances of spying began to come to light. Peter Goerke, the former head of HR at Credit Suisse also reported being under surveillance after he left the bank. Credit Suisse Chairman Urs Rohner, who had initially supported Thiam, turned against the CEO after the second instance of spying was reported.
After a reported power struggle and fierce boardroom battle between Thiam and Rohner, the bank’s board unanimously supported Rohner and accepted Thiam’s resignation in Februrary this year. Thiam had to resign to protect the bank’s reputation after the scandal, Rohner later said.
The Wing CEO Audrey Gelman
Women-focused co-working space startup The Wing has faced frequent criticism for its “branded feminism.” Since it’s founding in 2016, Co-founder and former CEO Audrey Gelman had capitalized on the growing tide of feminism, female empowerment and the #MeToo movement.
But the Black Lives Matter protests spelled trouble for the The Wing. A disturbing incident that took place last year exposed the startup’s failure to make its workspaces more inclusive, especially for women of color. In the incident, the startup allegedly failed to follow its own policies with regards to asking a white woman to leave the space after an instance of racism, and disregarded the discomfort of the Black women involved.
Critics have vehemently called the workspace racist while a New York Times Magazine exposé revealed the startup’s toxic culture. There were reports of mistreatment of LGBTQ and colored women employees from both members and staff, Entrepreneur reported.
Amid the growing criticism and protests, Gelman resigned as the CEO in June. Months later, in a public letter on Instagram, Gelman acknowledged that her drive to achieve growth and personal success led her to “uphold the kind of societal inequality we set out to upend.”
“We had not subverted the historical oppression and racist roots of the hospitality industry; we had dressed it up as a kindler, gentler version,” she wrote. She apologized for her inaction and sounded her support for former staff and members who had been victims of the startup’s racist bias.
Away CEO Steph Korey
Direct-to-consumer luggage brand Away gained massive popularity among millennials and celebrities alike. The brand image was built around ideas of inclusive lifestyles and sublime travel experiences. But, within the walls of its office, a toxic growth and image-obsessed culture of intimidation and surveillance ran rampant, exposed by a Verge report last year. Forbes, however, published a piece sympathizing with Korey not long after.
Former CEO Steph Korey had originally stepped down in December 2019 after the publication of the Verge report drew outrage. She even sent an apology statement to CNBC, acknowledging that her comments were “wrong, plain and simple.” A month later, however, she backpedaled and decided to take on the role of Co-CEO, along with former Lululemon’s COO Stuart Haselden.
In late June, this year, Korey attacked digital media outlets in her Instagram stories, claiming that “misrepresentation is the business model” of these outlets. Korey was on maternity leave at the time. Her comments about the integrity of digital media outlets amid the heated Black Lives Matter protests, drew concern from employees. Several employees wrote an anonymous letter to Co-CEO Haselden and Co-founder Jen Rubio voicing their concerns.
In response, the top executives informed employees that Korey will be stepping down within the year, as originally planned. In October, Korey finally relinquished her role at the company.
While the world is battling an unprecedented global health crisis, these CEO departures have left an unpleasant mark in the world of business this year.
Header image by Anthony Delanoix on Unsplash