Until recently, Basecamp was a web software company employing 58 people. One third of them have abruptly quit, and the whole tech world is watching the drama unfold with fascination. The employees decided to leave upon the announcement that Basecamp is becoming largely apolitical. The reason: “every discussion remotely related to politics, advocacy, or society at large quickly spins away from pleasant”.
Basecamp followed the example of Coinbase that made a similar decision last year, albeit with less dramatic results. “Only” 5 percent of the crypto exchange company employees quit immediately. What’s happening now with Basecamp is even more intense. You could call it a case study on how not to approach diversity and inclusion at work. Can you – and should you – ask employees to be completely apolitical?
A mission-focused company
Reading through the Basecamp founders Jason Fried‘s and David Heinemeier Hansson’s blogs explaining the new apolitical company policies, their reasoning makes sense. “Basecamp should be a place where employees can come to work with colleagues of all backgrounds and political convictions without having to deal with heavy political or societal debates unconnected to that work,” Hansson wrote. He believes that the employees shouldn’t be pressured into either feeling complicit or being in a position of a target. “No forgetting what we do here. We make project-management, team-communication, and email software. We are not a social impact company,” he concluded.
Without digging deeper, all of this seems reasonable from a founder’s perspective. Of course, you would want your employees to focus on work and not worry about conflicts related to personal beliefs. And it’s not like they can’t be involved in any debates they’d like outside of work. It didn’t seem like such a big deal, and perhaps that’s why the founders miscalculated what turmoil would follow. Because when you do the digging, Basecamp’s apolitical policy gets very, very complicated.
Black Lives Matter, activism, and apolitical Basecamp
As the best-selling author and journalist Malcolm Gladwell pointed out, the Black Lives Matter movement represents a civil rights revolution of our age. Companies have suddenly started changing their diversity and inclusion policies and financially supporting the cause. Bozoma Saint-John, CMO at Netflix, admitted she was shocked about the reaction of the business community. Black Lives Matter has been here for ages after all, but it took the murder of George Floyd to push it to the center of public conversation.
“We talk about it all the time; we’ve had whitepapers on diversity and inclusion forever. Those are not new papers; they are not new reasons to make sure that your workforce is diverse to see benefits in business,” she observed. She also noted that her priority as a leader is to make every company react to what’s happening.
It’s hard to shake the feeling that both Coinbase and Basecamp viewed this very differently. Their reactions suggest that they felt the surge of corporate and individual activism is more of a… distraction. They don’t want the “difficult discussions” to happen at work. Instead, Hansson encouraged the employees to continue with their activism and political engagement outside of work, pledging to do the same. The company as a whole also intends to stay out of political discussions. However, it reserved the right to remain involved in the issues directly related to their business and products. “This means topics like antitrust, privacy, employee surveillance,” Hansson wrote.
The whole story
As Casey Newton’s brilliant reporting on the Basecamp story shows, the risky decision to turn the company apolitical has a complicated history that was likely not supposed to be revealed publicly. It starts with more than a third of employees forming a DE&I (diversity, equity, and inclusion) council. They began reviewing everything from hiring processes to what kind of speakers they should be inviting to their internal gatherings.
Thanks to the council, the employees also addressed a highly controversial list of “funny” customer names that the employees collected throughout the years. Many of those names were allegedly of Asian or African origin. The founders confirmed to Newton that they knew about the list and took responsibility for not dealing with it sooner. And while Hansson wanted to move on quickly, employees kept the discussions going. Newton describes more conflicts that ensued, including this company meeting where opinions on white supremacy were exchanged, bringing some employees to tears. The rest is history: Basecamp pledged to become apolitical, banning these discussions altogether to focus on their mission. Understandably, some employees decided it’s no longer a place for them. And despite an apology from Jason Fried, the policy remains.
Bring your whole self to work? Not at apolitical Basecamp
It’s questionable if it’s possible – or desirable – to avoid “heavy” topics at work altogether. Especially when they’re an integral part of your life. Newton’s discussions with the Basecamp employees confirm their discomfort. They wonder how to handle small talk about schools or parenting without getting political and worry about diversity and inclusion efforts in general.
In a world where empowering leaders encourage people to bring their whole selves to work, Basecamp’s apolitical policy is at the very least controversial. Considering the drama that unfolded, perhaps other companies will think twice about implementing similar rules.
If it’s important for you to be fully yourself at work, enjoy it for now. It may not be as automatic in the future.