Can Coinbase ward off employee activism with its new hardline policy?

What happened at Google won’t be tolerated at Coinbase.
What happened at Google won’t be tolerated at Coinbase.
Image: REUTERS/Stephen Lam
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Back in June, Brian Armstrong, CEO of the digital currency exchange Coinbase,  tweeted his support for the Black Lives Matter movement, making him an anomaly in his industry. It was an easy, possibly empty gesture, but it beat the deafening silence from most of his peers in the crypto world.

“After speaking with our Black employees this week, it became clear to me how much pain they are in during this moment. I feel an obligation to support all employees at Coinbase, especially our Black employees right now, who are experiencing something I will never fully understand,” he wrote in a Twitter thread. “So I’ve decided to speak up.”

Recently, however, Armstrong seemed to have a change of heart.

In a Sept. 27 blog post titled “Coinbase is a mission focused company,” the CEO criticized corporate and employee activism, suggesting that engaging in social issues destroys value by distracting companies and creating internal divisions. At a time when employees at other tech firms are pressuring their bosses to move in exactly the opposite direction, he wants the company to disengage with the larger discussion—and Coinbase employees who wish to see causes like equality for all or climate justice as part of the company’s mission are invited, he wrote, to find a new job.

“I want Coinbase to be laser focused on achieving its mission, because I believe that this is the way that we can have the biggest impact on the world,” Armstrong wrote. He envisioned a culture in which the company’s goals come before team or individual goals.

“We’ve seen what internal strife at companies like Google and Facebook can do to productivity, and there are many smaller companies who have had their own challenges here,” Armstrong stated, before spelling out exactly what will be prohibited at Coinbase.

He asserted that Coinbase, which is valued at a roughly $8 billion and employs more than 1,000 people, will never shy away from making a profit and will not support political candidates or policies that are not seen as relevant to the firm’s raison d’être. He advised that employees of Coinbase will not:

Debate causes or political candidates internally

Expect the company to represent [their] personal beliefs externally

Assume negative intent, or not have each others back

Take on activism outside of our core mission at work

The response

If Armstrong was hoping to end a discussion, the plan backfired.

Based on the comments the blog post inspired, supporters saw refreshing clarity and a hard line against political efforts from either the left or the right, while critics saw arrogance and delusion. How could the CEO of a crypto currency exchange not see, for example, the ways his work may be linked to climate strikes (bitcoin mining requires massive amounts of energy), or how his employees might be personally affected at work by issues such as racial and gender bias?

Armstrong writes that the company’s mission is to build the infrastructure for a future cryptoeconomy, and nothing loftier than that. “I don’t think companies can succeed trying to do everything,” he says. Maybe so. But even narrowly focused companies arguably must do even one thing with greater awareness. Consider what we know about past decisions that shaped other forms of infrastructure—including highways, water systems, and schools—that had damning consequences for underrepresented communities.

To some, Armstrong’s stated commitment to building products and making a profit while blocking out the outside world reflected a scarcity mindset. Nike, for instance, makes money while supporting political causes, one commenter offered. Indeed, the leaders of many highly profitable companies, including legacy financial firms like MasterCard or Visa, have moved with the times, using their platforms to weigh in on a range of social issues, such as immigration, climate change, and human rights. In doing so, they become vulnerable to accusations of woke-washing, but at least they have joined in the cultural conversation and acknowledged a moral obligation to recognize how racism, intolerance, violence, and injustice impacts employees and customers.

To be fair, in his memo, Armstrong also voiced his support for creating equal opportunities, including access to leadership roles, particularly for people from underrepresented backgrounds. “We work to reduce unconscious bias in interviews, using things like structured interviews, and ensure fair practices in how we pay and promote,” he wrote.

But he also doubles down on either/or thinking, writing: “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 looming test

Armstrong’s message to those who disagree—to employees for whom social or political issues not directly related to digital currency are nonetheless deeply related to their daily lives—is uncomplicated: “For some employees, working at an activism focused company may be core to what they want,” he says, “and we want to prompt that conversation with their manager to help them get to a better place. Life is too short to work somewhere that you aren’t excited about, and we’re happy to make that a win-win conversation.”

His memo appears timed to get ahead of potential pressures from the “contentious US election on the horizon,” mentioned in his opening paragraph. Indeed, as election rhetoric heats up, there will be increasing attention paid to how political discussions and political activism play out in America’s workplaces.

At Facebook, for example, CEO Mark Zuckerberg has mostly encouraged public debate and discussion, while ignoring employees who criticize the social-media company’s position against deleting or labeling posts that promote hatred, including those by US president Donald Trump. But last week, the company announced measures to limit the types of political comments employees could make—an effort, Zuckerberg claimed, that was meant to protect employees from a potentially hostile environment.

Armstrong is going several steps further, disavowing activism on essentially any issues that are not directly related to Coinbase’s business because “we believe impact only comes with focus.” On political causes, he wrote, “[w]e don’t advocate for any particular causes or candidates internally that are unrelated to our mission, because it is a distraction from our mission. Even if we all agree something is a problem, we may not all agree on the solution.”

Perhaps Armstrong believes that by embracing and promoting an apolitical environment, he can avoid conflicts that might ultimately tarnish the company’s reputation. But companies are both contributors to and products of the larger landscape and they are always influencing it, whether by action or inaction.

Armstrong seems to understand that his policy won’t sit well with everyone. Coindesk reports that he followed up his blog post with a memo to employees offering four to six months severance, depending on length of service, to anyone who “doesn’t feel comfortable” with the new directives.