Software company Basecamp has released a controversial new memo banning political discussions on company platforms, among other changes to its culture, adding to the pushback against increasing pressure from both employees and consumers for businesses to be more outspoken on issues like racism, climate change, and income inequality.
Basecamp’s leadership seems to be following in the footsteps of Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong, who in 2020 declared his company apolitical (and invited any workers who didn’t agree with his decision to leave the company; about 5% of his staff took him up on the offer).
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The Basecamp memo is generating ample debate, both within and outside of the tech community—and even in Quartz’s own ranks. In discussing the merits and pitfalls of Basecamp’s new policies, we suspected that our own relative positions of power were informing our interpretations of Basecamp’s motivations and the soundness of its new rules. So we took each rule, as stated in the memo, and offered both a manager’s view (from Quartz at Work editor Heather Landy) and a rank-and-file perspective (from Quartz at Work senior reporter Sarah Todd), in the hopes of facilitating even more productive conversations about balancing leadership and employee input in the workplace—even if it just got a bit harder to have those kinds of discussions at Basecamp.
This is the rule that’s gotten the most attention so far. Basecamp co-founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson are banning conversations about social issues and politics on Basecamp’s official workplace account. Their reasoning is that such conversations are a) too distracting from work, b) unconnected to work, and c) too stressful and conflict-laden. “You shouldn’t have to wonder if staying out of it means you’re complicit, or wading into it means you’re a target,” writes Fried. An addendum post from Hansson notes that Basecamp will still engage in conversations about political topics deemed core to their business, such as “antitrust, privacy, employee surveillance.”
The employee take: The founders of Basecamp assume that conversations about politics and society are unrelated to work. It’s a false assumption. Politics and societal issues shape the world of work in myriad ways, including both the products that Basecamp builds and the experiences that people have while working there. We know, for example, that people’s racial and gendered biases get built into algorithms; that programming terms can reflect racist histories; that conversations about transgender and LGBTQ rights can apply to something as concrete as company policy surrounding pronouns; and that the #MeToo movement prompted a much-needed conversation about how sexism and sexual harassment are rampant in many workplaces.
Last year, after George Floyd was murdered by police, international protests and discussions about racism prompted employees at a range of companies, from Nike to Slack to Pinterest, to raise internal and external awareness about the ways their own companies were perpetuating inequality. Shutting down internal conversations about any of these subjects is the opposite of an apolitical choice; it’s a choice to perpetuate the status quo.
The other big issue I take with this rule is that it prioritizes the comfort of those who find conversations about politics stressful, without seeming to question the implications of the expectation to always feel comfortable—which in this case seems to mean unchallenged—in the workplace. Many diversity and inclusion experts talk about how important it is for people to embrace discomfort in the interest of having meaningful conversations about inclusion. And many Black Americans feel isolated and alienated in workplaces where there isn’t space to acknowledge, for example, the problems of police brutality and how such news impacts them personally. The comfort of some, under Basecamp’s new rule, will come at others’ expense.
The manager take: Managers are ultimately responsible for the safety and well-being of all employees. If some staff are uncomfortable with political discussions, it’s easy to suggest they ought not participate; but if declining to participate is then seen as a statement (in the “silence is complicity” vein) then you’re really not giving people a fair choice to stay out of the fray. It’s true that politics and social constructs are woven through practically everything that happens in a workplace, but it’s also true that discussions about politics and social issues often veer well beyond the point at which they’re directly relevant to a business. This isn’t a concern I have at Quartz, where commenting on the issues of the day is very much part of our job. For other kinds of companies, it can be a conundrum. In addition to being Big Brother-ish to tell people what they can and can’t talk about on company platforms, it’s easy to see how this rule might be taken as a silencing of the change-makers our society and workplaces badly need. But I temper that with the Basecamp leadership’s encouragement of people to speak out on these issues in a personal capacity, and on personal channels—if they want to.
Basecamp is eliminating its offerings of “a fitness benefit, a wellness allowance, a farmer’s market share, and continuing education allowances.” Writes Fried, “By providing funds for certain things, we’re getting too deep into nudging people’s personal, individual choices.” Instead, every employee will be paid the full cash value of those benefits for this year.
The employee take: This rule makes some sense to me—I’m all for generous benefits packages, but agree that it’s not the role of the workplace to incentivize people to spend their money and time outside of work in particular ways. There are also some known tricky aspects to corporate wellness programs in particular, including the ways they can inadvertently stigmatize fat people or those with health problems. I appreciate that Basecamp says they’ll pay the equivalent of these benefits to employees this year, but wonder if they’ll make that a permanent change.
The manager take: Amen to this new rule. As an employee myself, I have always found it virtually impossible to keep track of all the separate benefits offered to me; I’m certain I’m leaving money and opportunities on the table. And it’s making the work of HR departments a lot more complicated, when we know it’s more important than ever that they be focused on areas like equity, diversity, and development. (I’d much rather see the HR team at my company working on those topics versus shopping around for gym discounts for me and my co-workers.) I would gladly take (or give) the cash and leave it up to each individual to make the lifestyle choices that suit them best.
Basecamp is disbanding committees dedicated to DEI and “moral quandaries,” among others. “The responsibility for DEI work returns to Andrea, our head of People Ops. The responsibility for negotiating use restrictions and moral quandaries returns to me and David,” Fried writes. He doesn’t elaborate too much on the logic behind this decision, simply writing, “Back to basics, back to individual responsibility, back to work.”
The employee take: Committees can certainly be inefficient and annoying, but in conjunction with the other measures Basecamp is taking, this reads as part of a broader move to consolidate power among management and give employees less of a voice at the company they work for. Particularly concerning is the idea of disbanding a diversity committee, with its potential to bring multiple perspectives to the table and help the company identify blind spots when it comes to hiring and retaining people of color, and redirecting responsibility for DEI (apparently solely) to Basecamp’s head of people ops. A DEI committee is hardly a silver bullet for curing a company’s inclusion problems, but it’s important to give workers a way to come together as a group to discuss their concerns and suggestions. If individuals now have to take it upon themselves independently to bring their ideas to people ops, it’s a lot easier for management to ignore them, and they’re deprived of the support of their colleagues that can make it easier to push for change.
The manager take: If you’re abolishing committees, it’s vital to make sure you have other avenues for employees to contribute ideas and opinions. The efficiency hound in me loves their intention: “When we need advice or counsel we’ll ask individuals with direct relevant experience rather than a pre-defined group at large.” It’s inviting trouble, though, if the selection of the “right” people is a biased exercise that leaves potentially valuable viewpoints out in the cold. Committees are no better in this regard, as they tend to be groups that are either self-selecting or appointed with all of the same biases at play, with the added risk of all the viewpoint-squelching behaviors that often occur in meetings. So if the committees aren’t helping the business, by all means get rid of them—but do the work to make sure you’re inviting good ideas from absolutely anyone who might have them.
Basecamp says it’s wasted too much time agonizing over decisions. “It’s time to get back to making calls, explaining why once, and moving on.”
The employee take: Fried and Hansson are apparently sick of explaining themselves to employees. To that I say: Too bad! Explaining your decisions is a part of any business leader’s mandate. If employees still have questions, perhaps the problem lies with the explanation itself. At the very least, employers ought to appreciate the opportunity to hear from employees about how past decisions are continuing to impact them in the present.
This is not to suggest that every decision company leadership makes needs to be co-signed by the entire workforce, which would make it hard to get anything done at all. But shutting down continued questions or comments about the repercussions of such discussions comes across as both dictatorial and as a rule that’s going to be very difficult to enforce. Perhaps the hope is that employees will be intimidated by the announcement itself into keeping quiet; I for one hope that they pursue the path of the disagreeable giver, and make themselves helpful pains in the neck.
The manager take: There’s a fine line between providing accountability for decisions and indulging in overthinking about them. “Explaining once,” as Basecamp’s leaders propose to do now, is probably not enough in an asynch, multi-channel world. But the instinct to avoid unproductive rehashing is admirable.
The problem with 360 reviews, according to Basecamp, is that the peer feedback tends to be weighted too heavily toward the positive, with not enough constructive criticism, amounting to “performative busywork.”
The employee take: It’s easy for me to believe that employees might tend to be overwhelmingly positive toward each other, but it’s not clear to me why it’s a bad thing for workers to hear from their peers about how they appreciate and benefit from one another’s efforts. Perhaps the solution could be to streamline the performance reviews so employees aren’t spending too much time giving feedback to 10 of their colleagues—or to design another process for doing so.
The manager take: In workplaces where feedback and collaboration are prized, 360 performance reviews make great sense—on paper. In practice, the Basecamp folks have found that the evaluations are not constructive. Indeed, if you’re trying to encourage someone to figure out where they can improve, then peer reviews that are almost exclusively positive and reassuring are not helpful. But we all need positive reinforcement and reassurance about our work. If annual 360s aren’t the right venue for that, so be it. But hopefully there are less formal (and more frequent!) ways for people to hear about what’s going right.
“We make project management, team communication, and email software,” the post declares. “We are not a social impact company.”
The employee take: As Fried acknowledges, Basecamp blogs a lot, and not exclusively about software. He and Hansson also co-authored a book on remote work, a topic with plenty of political and societal implications with respect to gender equality, economics, urban geography, and more. So their rule seems to ignore the ways in which politics and social issues are enmeshed in everything companies do. Just because Fried and Hansson can’t (or won’t) acknowledge this reality doesn’t mean that they should expect all their employees to make the same false distinctions.
The manager take: To me this is the worst of Basecamp’s six new rules, because a) it rehashes and reinforces rule number one, which is the most controversial by far, and b) it leaves employees with the rather uninspiring option of tying their sense of purpose at work to the creation of “project management, team communication, and email software.” That’s noble work indeed—who among us wouldn’t want better software for any of those things?—but it’s generally not the kind of purpose that gets people feeling excited and engaged in their work. Making software? That’s a purpose well suited to founders with a specific vision and a chance to profit handsomely from it. But most people who aren’t founders crave more meaning than that, and respond well when they find it. Does Basecamp need to commit to making the world better? Of course not. Might it instead commit to making workplaces better? That would certainly align with its business. Might these new rules make its own workplace better? Only time will tell.