Coinbase employees are quitting their newly “apolitical” workplace

Speaking up in San Francisco.
Speaking up in San Francisco.
Image: Reuters/Elijah Nouvelage
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Brian Armstrong, CEO of Coinbase, recently announced he was committed to building an “apolitical” workplace, but the politics of that move did not sit well with a substantial number of employees at the San Francisco-based cryptocurrency exchange.

Yesterday, Armstrong reported 5% of his staff, or 60 people, chose to leave with a severance package totaling four to six months pay, a goodbye gift the company had offered anyone who was unprepared to accept new rules banning discussion of social causes at work.  

Some additional exit discussions were ongoing, Armstrong said, so the final departures count was expected to rise. However, the one-week deadline for voluntary buyouts had passed.

Rolling backwards

Armstrong laid out his vision for a hyper-focused company that would only engage with social issues directly related to the company’s mission in a blog post published in late September. In an era of stakeholder capitalism, when more leaders are expected to partake in internal and public discussions over topics like racism, police reform, immigration, LGBTQ rights, and ethical behavior—and during a pandemic that has only emphasized our interconnectedness—Armstrong’s position attracted media and peer attention.

Jack Dorsey, co-founder and CEO of Twitter, was among the Silicon Valley luminaries who questioned Armstrong’s reasoning. He tweeted that Armstrong’s message seemed “chilling,” and called attention to a fundamental contradiction:

Armstrong actually agrees that crypto is political by nature (as he tweeted in response), but he clearly doesn’t see why Coinbase should therefore be concerned and allied with additional political intentions. That points to a large part of the problem with his new rules: Who gets to choose what is related to the work Coinbase is doing? Armstrong appears to be drawing an arbitrary line around what topics the company can care about. (The company declined to comment on events at the firm.)

In an attempt to clear up the confusion he created, Armstrong included some FAQs in yesterday’s memo:

Isn’t crypto inherently political?
Yes, we are ok being political about this one particular area because it relates to our mission.

Do employees have to pretend politics don’t exist?
No, we support each other through tough times and also have conversations about recent events like any team. We have just made a decision to not engage in broader activism as a company outside of our mission.

How will I know what counts as political?
We recognize it’s a blurry line, and ask that employees use good judgement. Our goal is not to look for violations, but rather to support employees in adapting to these clarified expectations.

However, one of the ways the company has started “supporting employees” was by removing office signs that invited people to use any bathroom where they felt comfortable, according to Business Insider.

Black Lives Matter tipped the scales

This tale of an anti-activist CEO protesting activism at work began when Coinbase refused to post public messages in support of Black Lives Matter and Armstrong stalled on even uttering those three words before employees, reportedly because he wasn’t sure what other positions—like defunding the police—might be implied by the message. In other words, Armstrong is presenting his no- or low-politics position as an abstract principle meant to support the company’s productivity, but the deeper issue is tied to a specific intolerable reality, one that’s inescapable for employees who are Black.

At one all-hands meeting after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police earlier this year, some Black employees talked about their experiences at Coinbase, Wired’s Gregory Barber discovered. “Black employees described feeling invisible at a company that had not publicly acknowledged their pain, and like ‘a clown’ for trying to defend Coinbase’s inaction to outsiders.” Armstrong’s response was a belated twitter thread, followed by a complete retreat from the discussion, topped off by both a company speech and that initial blog entry introducing Coinbase’s official apolitical policy. Next, he gave employees a week to decide whether or not they were onboard with his new plan or if they’d prefer to take the money and run.

In today’s missive, the chief executive expressed his best wishes for people like Clem Freeman (tweet below), a former Coinbase software engineer, who took exception with Armstrong’s vision:

The CEO’s extreme position has made him a standout in liberal Silicon Valley as a whole, but it’s not a radical stance among crypto companies. With some exceptions, the latter tend to embrace free market economics and oppose social progressivism.

Armstrong didn’t disclose how many of the 5% and counting leaving Coinbase are people of color, but he did defend the company:

“I’ve heard a concern from some of you that this clarification would disproportionately impact our under-represented minority population at Coinbase. It was reassuring to see that people from under-represented groups at Coinbase have not taken the exit package in numbers disproportionate to the overall population. We’ll continue to keep a close eye on this to ensure we are building a diverse, inclusive environment where everyone feels they belong.”

In a tweet, Katherine Wu, a principal at the Brooklyn-based venture capital fund Notation, called  it “I’m not racist because I have Black friends” logic.

Sadly, if Armstrong doesn’t keep his word, or if many employees that would like to leave can’t take the financial risk, Armstrong probably won’t hear about it.

Other Silicon Valley companies, however, may soon be welcoming some conscientious talent: