When the leaders of the product and software management company Basecamp announced last week that they would limit political conversations at work, the consequences came quickly.
Technicians, workplace consultants and politicians attacked the decision on Twitter and LinkedIn, although other company executives called it a bold move. Some officials have publicly threatened to leave. Eventually, the Chicago-based company offered to buy out its staff of about 50. A significant number of employees decided to leave.
Although small, Basecamp is influential among technology companies – its founders have written popular books about work and acted as an example of a job, cutting summer weeks and paying all employees in the same role the same salary. . His experience in regulating what employees talk about in the workplace shows how, after years of encouraging teams to “put themselves to work,”
Years ago Alphabet Inc.
Google and Facebook Inc.
led the coverage of open discussions on sensitive topics in the workplace, providing internal bulletin boards, town halls and other forums for employee feedback. Many others have followed suit, and leaders continue to take positions on social issues and give employees an arena to express themselves.
Recently, some companies have taken a different path – most notably the cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase Global Inc.,
which declared its culture “apolitical” last fall. CEO Brian Armstrong writes that the company will not discuss causes or political candidates internally and that employees should not expect Coinbase to take public positions on its own beliefs.
Google and Facebook, citing their desire to reduce internal tensions, have also taken steps to limit political conversations on work platforms.
With Basecamp, co-founder and CEO Jason Fried quoted “particularly excited” social and political waters and said such a dialogue had become a major distraction. In an open letter, an employee who was part of the company’s recent diversity and inclusion efforts called the move “depressing” and “muffling.” Numerous employees announced via Twitter that they had left.
The report in Platformer, a technology newsletter, highlighted some of the internal issues surrounding diversity, equity and inclusion that led the founders to introduce the ban.
The episode opened a heated debate in large and small technology companies about how to define what is political, whether such issues can be separated from diversity and inclusion, and how colleagues should engage on these issues.
David Heinmeier Hanson, co-founder of Basecamp, said in an email to The Wall Street Journal that the company’s announcement had received “an avalanche of supporting emails from executives and employees working in companies where social policy is taking on more and more from a domain and if you sit with the wrong ideology, it’s very scary. “
Demanding people to split is difficult after the political turmoil of last year and the mixing of work and personal life caused by remote work in the pandemic, said Glen Kelman, CEO of Redfin Corp., a Seattle-based real estate broker.
Redfin took a public stand in support of the Black Lives Matter after the death of George Floyd and the ensuing protests. Officials with different views then entered into a debate at work, and Mr Kelman said he had been called to be a judge. “I wasn’t trained to do it,” he said.
Redfin is already approaching broader social issues on a case-by-case basis. Mr Kelman said the company would take a public stand and support justice staff internally, with the Black Lives Matter movement, even if some employees see it as a political gesture. Mr Kelman acknowledges that the system is not perfect.
“We tried to come up with a rule,” he said. “And it turns out to be impossible.”
At Provo-based Harmon Brothers LLC, a Utah-based digital marketer, employees posted links to guerrilla news articles on company channels in the Slack messaging app during the last election cycle and then became embroiled in controversy. CEO Benton Crane worries that remote interaction is degrading the quality of the political debates they have personally led.
At Slack, “people were much sharper in tone,” he said. “They were less sympathetic to who they were communicating with.”
In March, the company made a new rule: employees who want to post a link to Slack must first make a video explaining their thoughts on the relationship; anyone who wants to answer must record their own video.
While it was still early, Mr. Crane said that almost no one was fighting Slack anymore.
“Politics has almost had the effect of a ban, but without the negative baggage that comes with banning people from feeling as if their voices are suffocated,” he said.
Facebook has made changes to its internal political and social justice speech policies after hearing feedback from employees that they want more control over their exposure to these discussions. Last September, the company did so so that employees could turn on or off to see such content in their work feed. Facebook said the changes have helped work-related conversations become more constructive while giving employees space for personal expression.
Google was at the beginning of promoting a work culture where debate was commonplace, and then, after years of internal battles and several lawsuits, tried to master the political discussions on internal platforms in 2019. A spokesman said the community guidelines Google added support for a healthy and open discussion and did not comment further.
The issues at the heart of these debates can be deeply personal to many who shudder at what they see as efforts to link dialogue to diversity and inclusion with party differences.
As for the issues of political and social justice for people of color and underrepresented groups, “You can’t break away from that because that’s who you are,” said Lekisha Middleton, founder of the Success Network, an organizational consulting and coaching firm that works. mostly with technology companies on D&I issues.
Ms Middleton, who is black, said bans on political debate could be seen as an attempt to silence difficult conversations on sensitive topics.
“That’s just not the answer,” she said of the bans.
Following Coinbase’s decision, about 60 employees receive compensation packages. People quickly used the Basecamp message as a dialing mechanism.
A marketing employee from Microsoft Corp.
owner-LinkedIn approached Basecamp employees directly on the career network platform, telling them that she hires and that they will be free to bring their whole selves to work. (LinkedIn’s CEO apologized last year after an anonymous town hall meeting following the assassination of George Floyd led to issues he later called appalling).
Some employees of Conductor Inc., a New York-based marketing and software startup, told CEO and co-founder Seth Besmertnik that they would focus on work rather than politics. Others say they are uncomfortable talking about political and social issues because they are afraid of saying something wrong.
“They are not racist, but they may not be best prepared for talks in this area,” he said.
Mr Besmertnik said he often talked to the leaders of Conductor’s resource groups about how to navigate sensitive situations and make everyone feel safe.
Mr Fried, CEO and co-founder of Basecamp, declined to discuss what had happened at the company, saying he was pausing “so I could focus all my energy inward as employees make decisions”.
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—Chip Cutter contributed to this article.
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