Why Basecamp Banned Talking Politics at Work

Bessie LiuFeatures
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Basecamp employees can no longer engage in conversations about politics at work. Image credit: Studiostoks, Shutterstock.

This week, Basecamp staff abruptly found out they were banned from talking politics at work when co-founder and CEO Jason Fried, released a controversial memo.

"It saps our energy, and redirects our dialog towards dark places. It's not healthy, it hasn't served us well," Fried wrote.

The new changes at the company did not stop there. The software developer and self-proclaimed “serial author” will also be cancelling paternalistic benefits and disbanding workgroup committees. He says the decisions come from a place of trying to benefit the company as a whole, rather than the individual.

Basecamp

"We make individual choices. We all want different things. Some slightly different, some substantially," Fried wrote. "Companies, however, must settle the collective difference, pick a point, and navigate towards somewhere, lest they get stuck circling nowhere."

Unsurprisingly, the announcements sent shockwaves through social media and Silicon Valley. Many current and former employees, including high profile figures within the company, took to Twitter to voice their concerns.

‘Hazing ritual’

"I've worked at Basecamp for a long time because it's a company full of smart and kind people, and together we've always tried to take care and do the right things. I don't agree with the changes announced today, and I'm sad & upset," Basecamp’s Head of Design Jonas Downey tweeted.

The announcement has led to a wave of employees handing in their resignation letters. Downey and more than a dozen other employees tweeted that they will be leaving the company. This includes Head of Marketing, Andy Didorosi, Head of Customer Support, Kristin Aardsma and Audio producer of The REWORK Podcast, Wailin Wong.

Former employee Kasper Timm Hansen, who had left the company just two weeks ago, tweeted his disappointment in the move, and said he didn’t expect “the cracks to start showing this soon and in this way.”

"The post read more like a hazing ritual to me, like an ominous priming to cull sensitivity. This can shift the company rapidly in a short time."

In a follow-up post, co-founder and CTO David Heinemeier Hansson said political discussions related directly to the company would be allowed. He followed up by clarifying that employees were free to discuss politics on non-work-related platforms.

"Bring all your political advocacy to whatever personal spaces you have. Twitter, Facebook, your local advocacy group, all of it," Hansson said. "Just don't bring it into the internal communication platforms we use for work, unless it directly relates to our business. I'm applying that same standard to myself, and Jason is too."

Concerns of racism

Soon after the memo was published, Founder of Platformer News Casey Newton revealed the politics ban allegedly stemmed from a list of 'funny names' kept by Basecamp customer service representatives. The list of names allegedly includes many of African and Asian origin, raising concerns of racism amongst employees.

Newton said despite knowing about the list for a long time, the co-founders did little to nothing about it.

"Hansson wanted to acknowledge the situation as a failure and move on. But when employees who had been involved in the list wanted to continue talking about it, he grew exasperated," Newton wrote.

When one employee spoke up in light of the growing concerns about an increasing number of hate crimes against Asian Americans, Hansson dismissed his complaint. He did soby publicly posting an old chat log where the employee had participated in a conversation about a customer with a 'funny name'.

Two weeks after two failed HR complaints against the co-founders were filed, the memo on banning all political dialogue at work was published.

Some say courage, others naivety

Basecamp isn’t the first company in the tech space to banpolitical conversations. In September, cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase, whose public debut received an $85.8B valuation earlier this month, announced it wanted to be a mission-focused company, devoid of politics.

"We won't debate causes or political candidates internally that are unrelated to work," Coinbase co-founder and CEO Brian Armstrong wrote in a blog post.

"We could use our work day debating what to do about various unrelated challenges in the world, but that would not be in service of the company or our own interests as employees and shareholders."

The 38-year-old billionaire commended Basecamp for its effort to push change in the company. "Another mission focused company. It takes courage in these times. Who will be next?," Armstrong wrote.

Despite this, many are concerned about whether or not an apolitical workspace is even possible in a time when discrimination based on gender, race and sexual orientation is all considered political.

In a time when discrimation based on gender, race, sexual orientation, or anything else is at the forefront of the corporate and political worlds, there are questions around how apolitical a workspace can be.

"This is incredibly naive and could only be written by someone who's not really impacted by issues of injustice," Gawker Founding Editor Elizabeth Spiers tweeted.

Insights reached out to Fried for comment, but was informed the co-founder was currently focusing his energy on his company and employees.

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