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Max Chafkin

Sheryl Sandberg’s Wedding Expenses Are the Least of Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg Problems

For an entrepreneur who has made “community” his life’s mission, Mark Zuckerberg has always seemed oddly fixated on managing his own appearance. There was his decision to hire Barack Obama’s former campaign manager ahead of a weird pseudo-political bus tour in which he was attended by a flock of handlers and a photographer famous for documenting Obama’s presidency. There were his heavily produced “personal challenges” (one of which included a commercial with a Morgan Freeman voiceover), the birth announcements doubling as corporate restructuring, and a personal security budget in 2021 that was nearly 16 times what Amazon Inc. spent to keep Jeff Bezos safe.

All of this might seem excessive, but one could argue that it made at least some sense from a business perspective. Meta Platforms Inc., the parent of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, is closely identified with its co-founder and supreme leader. How a chief executive officer is publicly perceived affects a company—so, if you’re a Facebook investor, you probably wouldn’t complain if you found out that Zuckerberg had hired a pollster to go around asking people how they felt about him personally. For years, this approach also seemed to apply to his chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg.

Now it turns out that Facebook has been rethinking that logic, at least as it applied to Sandberg. On June 10, the Wall Street Journal reported that Sandberg’s decision to leave the company, announced earlier this month, coincided with an internal investigation into her “use of corporate resources” for personal expenses including for her foundation, a book, and her planned wedding. The investigation into possible misappropriation, which Sandberg has denied, threatens to disrupt what had been a well-choreographed departure and could dent Sandberg’s prospects as a potential chief executive or Senate candidate. It could also, as the Journal points out, lead to Securities and Exchange Commission penalties if Sandberg’s personal expenses weren’t properly disclosed.

Yet the focus on alleged wedding planning, if it indeed played a role in her departure, should feel a bit strange to anyone who has paid attention to the company’s well-established policy of spending extreme sums of money to ensure the comfort and preserve the reputations of its senior executives. It smacks of either a sexist double standard—in which Zuckerberg promoted his own personal brand while his deputy was sanctioned for similar behavior—or an effort to deflect from the real scandals that have swirled around Facebook, Zuckerberg, and Sandberg for years.

If Sandberg did use corporate resources to plan her wedding, what of it? For years, her personal life was a crucial asset for the company that was just as important as the Cult of Zuck, if not more so. Sandberg’s bestselling books helped burnish Facebook’s reputation as a progressive employer and drew attention away from the destructive aspects of the company’s business. Thanks to Lean In, which covered Sandberg’s career, marriage, and parenting strategy, she became an icon of corporate feminism, as opposed to merely the executive behind a massive advertising machine. Option B, her follow-up about the death of her husband David Goldberg, served as an advertisement for the cathartic power of using Facebook during the bereavement process. It was, as reviewers noted, a deeply personal memoir that just so happened to encourage people to get on the internet and share like crazy.

It made sense, then, for Facebook to poll the public about Sandberg’s likability, in addition to that of Zuckerberg, and to spend $9 million on security for her last year—less than half of what it spent on Zuckerberg, but still more than five Bezoses’ worth of expenditures. Sandberg’s wedding, when it happens, will be a major media event. It would have offered yet another opportunity to showcase Facebook’s sharing tools and to highlight the company’s interest in taking care of the “whole selves” of its employees, to borrow a Sandbergism. It would have been, like the books, a personal and corporate branding opportunity twofer, and it would be odd if Facebook’s lawyers acted otherwise.

Of course, wedding planning wasn’t the only thing Sandberg was doing at the time she announced her departure. She was also facing allegations of a secret agreement, known as “Jedi Blue,” with Google Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai to manipulate online ad auctions in a way that would favor the two companies, according to an antitrust lawsuit. (Jedi Blue is also being scrutinized by regulators in the EU and UK; Google and Meta have denied wrongdoing.) Even more damaging to her standing was the allegation that she used Facebook employees, and the company’s power over publishers, to pressure the UK’s Daily Mail to kill a story about a temporary restraining order against a former boyfriend, Activision CEO Bobby Kotick. (Sandberg and Kotick have denied that one, too.) I haven’t even mentioned the more mundane aspects of Sandberg’s tenure that merit scrutiny. For instance: the way she supercharged data-driven personalized advertising, sometimes at the expense of user privacy; the way she helped hollow out the news industry; or the way Facebook allowed extremists to thrive on its platforms.

Both the Google pact and the Daily Mail allegation are instances in which Sandberg and her soon-to-be former employer potentially abused market power. They would be a lot worse than the suggestion that she used assistants to help her take care of some personal business. Facebook has said the investigation into the Daily Mail story is complete, but hasn’t said what it revealed; the Journal contends that that investigation has been folded into its inquiry into her use of corporate resources, which apparently is ongoing.

Facebook, no doubt, would like this all to be brushed aside now that Sandberg is on the way out. It would be unfortunate if that happened. Sandberg’s tenure at Facebook deserves a real moral accounting; not a tabloid-worthy scandal about wedding expenses.Read next: Activision Blizzard’s Overwatch League Fails to Fulfill Bobby Kotick’s Vision

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.

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