When executives at the Basecamp product management and communications software company announced last week that they would slow down political talks in the workplace, the downturn came quickly.
Technical staff, workplace consultants and politicians attacked the decision on Twitter and LinkedIn, though other business leaders called it a bold move. Some employees publicly threatened to quit. In the end, the Chicago-based company offered buyouts to its employees of approx. 50. A significant number of employees decided to leave the company.
Although small, Basecamp is influential among technology companies – its founders have written popular books on work and kept them up as a model workplace with shortened weeks in the summer, paying everyone working in the same role the same salary. Its attempts to regulate what employees talk about at work show, after some years of urging teams to “bring all their work to work”
Many years ago Alphabet Inc.’s
Google and Facebook Inc.
led the way in embracing open discussions on sensitive issues in the workplace, providing internal bulletin boards, town halls and other forums for employee statements. Many others followed suit, and managers continue to take a stand on social issues, giving employees arenas to express themselves.
Recently, some companies have gone the other way – especially cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase Global Inc.,
as last fall declared its culture “apolitical.” CEO Brian Armstrong wrote that the company would not discuss causes or political candidates internally and that employees should not expect Coinbase to take public positions on their own personal beliefs.
Google and Facebook, citing a desire to curb internal tensions, have also moved to curb political conversation on work platforms.
With Basecamp, co-founder and CEO Jason Fried quoted “particularly choppy” social and political waters, saying such a dialogue had become a major distraction. In an open letter, an employee who had been part of the company’s recent diversity and inclusion efforts called the move “oppressive” and “sound-absorbing.” Several employees announced via Twitter that they had resigned.
Reporting in Platforms, a technology newsletter, highlighted some of the internal issues surrounding diversity, justice, and inclusion that led founders to introduce the ban.
The episode revealed a simmering debate among large and small technology companies about how to define what is political, whether such topics can be separated from diversity and inclusion, and how colleagues should engage in these topics.
David Heinemeier Hansson, Basecamp’s co-founder, told The Wall Street Journal in an email that he had received “an avalanche of support emails from executives and employees working in companies where social policy is taking over more and more domain,” and if you are sitting with the wrong ideology, it is very scary. ”
It’s hard to ask people to be divided after last year’s political upheaval and the mix of professional and personal life with teleworking in the pandemic, said Glenn Kelman, CEO of Redfin Corp., a technology-driven real estate agency based in Seattle .
Redfin took a public stance in support of Black Lives Matter after George Floyd’s death and subsequent protests. Employees with different views then entered into a debate in the workplace, and Mr. Kelman said he was called to judge. “I was not trained to do that,” he said.
Redfin is now approaching broader social issues on a case-by-case basis. Sir. Kelman said the company will take a public stance and voice support to employees internally on issues of justice, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, although some employees view this support as a political gesture. Mr. Kelman acknowledges that the system is not perfect.
“We were trying to come up with a rule,” he said. “And it turns out that’s impossible.”
At Harmon Brothers LLC, a Provo, Utah-based digital marketing startup of 50, employees posted links to biased news articles on corporate channels in the messaging app Slack this past election cycle and then got into arguments. CEO Benton Crane was concerned that interaction externally worsened the quality of the political debates they used to have in person.
On Slack, “people were much sharper in their tone,” he said. “They were less empathetic with who they communicated with.”
In March, the company made a new rule: employees who want to send a link to the company Slack must first make a video explaining their thoughts on the link; anyone who wants to answer must record their own video.
While it is still early, Mr Crane said almost no one is fighting on Slack anymore.
“The policy has almost had the effect of a ban, but without the negative baggage that comes with a ban on people feeling their voice being suffocated,” he said.
Facebook made changes to its internal policies regarding political and social justice issues in the workplace after hearing feedback from employees that they wanted more control over their exposure to these discussions. Last September, the company did so so employees could sign up or from 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 early in promoting a work culture where debates were common, and after years of internal struggles and several lawsuits, they sought to ease political discussions on internal platforms in 2019. A spokeswoman said the guidelines for the community Google added support for healthy and open discussion and did not comment further.
The issues at the heart of these debates may be deeply personal to many people, brushing aside what they see as efforts to bring together the dialogue on diversity and inclusion with biased disagreements.
When it comes to political and social justice issues for people with color and underrepresented groups, “You can not detach yourself from it because it is who you are,” said Lekisha Middleton, founder of the Good Success Network, an organizational consultant and executive coaching company. who work mostly with technology companies on D&I issues.
Mrs Middleton, who is black, said banning political debates could be seen as an attempt to silence difficult conversations on sensitive issues.
“It’s just not the answer,” she said of the bans.
Coinbase had about 60 employees taken resignation packages after its decision. People immediately used the Basecamp message as a recruitment mechanism.
A marketer from Microsoft Corp.
owned-LinkedIn addressed Basecamp employees directly on the career networking platform and told them she was employed and that they would be free to bring all of their work to work. (Linkedin’s own CEO apologized last year after an anonymous town hall meeting in the wake of the assassination of George Floyd led to questions he later called appalling).
Some employees at Conductor Inc., a New York-based marketing software startup, told CEO and co-founder Seth Besmertnik that they would rather focus on work than politics. Others have said they are uncomfortable with conversations about political and social issues because they are afraid to say the wrong thing.
“They are not out there to be racist, but they may not be the most equipped to hold talks in this area,” he said.
Sir. Besmertnik said he often talks to the leaders of Conductor’s employee resource groups about how to navigate sensitive situations and make everyone feel safe.
Sir. Fried, Basecamp’s CEO and co-founder, declined to discuss what happened at the company, saying he took a break, “so I can focus all my energy inward while employees make decisions.”
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—Chip Cutter contributed to this article.
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