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Why banning political discussions at work is flawed


Late last month, Basecamp, a project management software company, banned “societal and political discussions” at work.

Given the company’s relatively small size, the decision might have gone by with little notice, but its founders have made a name for themselves over the years as progressive thought leaders.

In a sweeping blog post, CEO Jason Fried also laid out a slew of other policy changes, including the elimination of “paternalistic benefits” such as fitness and continuing education allowances and the dismantling of a newly established diversity, equity and inclusion council.

It swiftly caught backlash; by Friday afternoon, roughly 20 of Basecamp’s fewer than 60 employees posted on Twitter that they were leaving the company, with some explicitly citing the new policies as the reason. The company is offering severance packages for employees who opt to leave given the “new direction.”

Basecamp, which has operated as a remote-working company since long before the pandemic, isn’t the first to issue a policy against political speech at work in recent months. Last fall, cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase made waves when its CEO outlined the company’s focus, spelling out that there was no place for engaging in “broader societal issues” or “political causes” outside its core mission of expanding the use of cryptocurrency.

The decision was criticized by some as exclusionary but also lauded by other notable figures such as Paul Graham, the venture capitalist and cofounder of the elite Silicon Valley accelerator Y Combinator, who tweeted at the time: “I predict most successful companies will follow Coinbase’s lead.” In response to Basecamp taking a similar path, Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong tweeted: “it takes courage in these times” and asking: “Who will be next?”

But diversity and inclusion experts say the move isn’t courageous. Instead, it seems motivated by fear of change as the world has fundamentally shifted in the past year in response to the pandemic and a broader reckoning around racial and social justice in the United States. According to Y-Vonne Hutchinson, the founder of inclusion consultancy firm ReadySet, the notion of banning politics and societal discussions at work comes across as an attempt to “bottle the genie on woke politics so people can just get away with what they’ve gotten away with before.”

Hutchinson told CNN Business that what the people who are making these decisions are “not realizing, or maybe what they don’t want to realize, is that in an environment where there is literally no separation between your work and your home and your very existence is political, you can’t really separate the two.”

After Fried’s original blog post, Casey Newton, a tech journalist writing for The Verge, reported there were worker-led internal discussions about diversity issues at Basecamp to assess everything from the company’s hiring processes to which vendors it uses.

During these discussions some employees also zeroed in on a list of “funny” customer names workers had collected over more than a decade, finding it to be a problematic practice. After Basecamp cofounder David Heinemeier Hansson acknowledged to employees the list was wrong, he attempted to shut down further internal discussion about the reasons why, Newton reported.

In a blog post responding to Newton’s reporting, Hansson wrote that it “brought some of the dirty laundry that helped motivate our change of direction regarding societal politics” into the public record. “Yes, I’m embarrassed that we didn’t put a stop to this list far earlier,” wrote Hansson.

In a series of tweets on Basecamp’s changes, Joelle Emerson, the founder of diversity consulting firm Paradigm, wrote: “Obviously people whose very identities are ‘political’ don’t get to opt out. This reads to me as a leader saying, ‘I couldn’t figure out how to do this perfectly, so we’re not going to do it at all.'”

She added, “of course, not talking about problems doesn’t make them go away. … The problems persist. The people most impacted by them will likely leave the organization, which will have the short-term impact of making you more comfortable, and making it *seem* like there are fewer problems.”

Tech companies have long tried to stay neutral on political issues while simultaneously positioning their products and services as having the potential to change the world. But today’s increasingly divided political environment has led many tech workers to push their companies to embrace more causes, making corporate neutrality more difficult to maintain.

Even so, given Fried and Hansson’s deep interest in workplace issues — the two have penned multiple books on business and the future of work, in addition to frequent musings on how to foster an ideal work culture — Basecamp seemed an unlikely place for such a conflict.

That such a large percentage of Basecamp’s workforce left in short order suggests that the new policy does not reflect the values of a number of employees.

As Jeffrey Hirsch, a labor law professor at the University of North Carolina, pointed out, Basecamp’s language describing what is considered social and political speech could violate US labor law. “I would say [what was described] was really broad, and that increases the likelihood that a reasonable employee would view it as chilling protected speech,” he said. “It could backfire, for sure.”

It could also have repercussions among its customers. In an open letter to Basecamp this week, a customer and fan of the company, Kris Smith, wrote that the announced changes “felt like a slap in the face.”

“I CAN NOT support a company that denies/declines to have discussions pertaining to issues that are important (i.e. what’s going on in society — especially within the Black community) just because it could be an inconvenience for their company,” the post read.

Meanwhile, Basecamp’s founders have attempted to diffuse the situation by blogging through it. Fried, the CEO who penned the original post, wrote a follow-up about “making decisions” the next day, stating that “decisions aren’t hard — it’s the moments after that are.”

The post originally concluded by leaving room for a reversal (“And the best thing about decisions? You can always make another”).

That sentence has since been deleted.

Article Topic Follows: Money

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