Social Justice

Basecamp Becomes the Latest Tech Company To Ban Talking Politics at Work

Silence isn't violence, and recusing your company from political discourse, as Basecamp and Coinbase have done, is a perfectly valid line to draw.


On Monday, productivity software company Basecamp announced a ban on talking politics at work and the discontinuation of "paternalistic benefits" like fitness-related stipends, farmer's market shares, and allowances for education. "Sensitivities are at 11, and every discussion remotely related to politics, advocacy, or society at large quickly spins away from pleasant. You shouldn't have to wonder if staying out of it means you're complicit, or wading into it means you're a target," co-founder Jason Fried wrote in a post announcing the changes. At work, political discussions have become "a major distraction," and, somewhat relatedly, "by providing funds for certain things, we're getting too deep into nudging people's personal, individual choices."

"We make project management, team communication, and email software. We are not a social impact company," Fried said. "We don't have to solve deep social problems, chime in publicly whenever the world requests our opinion on the major issues of the day, or get behind one movement or another with time or treasure. These are all important topics, but…they're not what we collectively do here."

"No comment thread on Basecamp is going to close the gap on fundamental philosophical and political differences," wrote co-founder David Heinemeier Hansson, widely known as DHH, in a companion post.

As Casey Newton reports at Platformer, the founders neglected to mention the impetus for the new companywide policy in their public statements. The trouble allegedly started circa 2009, when customer service reps at Basecamp began keeping a list of funny-sounding names, some of which were American or European in origin, others of which were names of minorities. And in December, a newer employee sought to create a Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Committee, recruiting 20 volunteers—a third of the company's lean workforce.

Earlier this month, "two employees posted an apology on the internal Basecamp for having contributed to the list in the past" which "included an image of 'the pyramid of hate,' an illustration created by the Anti-Defamation League to show how the most extreme acts of extremist violence are enabled by a foundation of biased attitudes and acts of bias." The pyramid places "biased attitudes" like stereotyping and non-inclusive language at the bottom, with "acts of bias," "discrimination," "bias motivated violence," and "genocide" in ascending order. DHH's internal response to this included a condemnation of the mean-spirited list, but also an objection to the use of the pyramid. "He told me today that attempting to link the list of customer names to potential genocide represented a case of 'catastrophizing'—one that made it impossible for any good-faith discussions to follow," Newton wrote. This seems eminently reasonable; an attempt to take a shitty list, made years ago by an employee who is no longer with the company, and depict it as potentially the first rung in a person's conversion to carrying out violent, genocidal acts, is an enormous stretch.

If this ruckus sound familiar, it may be because Brian Armstrong of the cryptocurrency exchange platform Coinbase issued a similar statement last September, saying his company would no longer tolerate people engaging at work with political issues "unrelated to our core mission, because we believe impact only comes with focus."

"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," wrote Armstrong, who asked that employees who don't share this mission of advancing global economic freedom resign, offering them four to six months of severance. Ultimately, 5 percent of the workforce—about 60 people—chose to take this exit ramp. Shortly thereafter, The New York Times published a piece alleging that discrimination against black employees had led to this "exodus." Coinbase reps disputed the Times' characterization, saying that the company had a record of only three formal complaints over the time period in question and that all were found to be unsubstantiated.

In any case, a company can have good reasons to recuse itself from such statements. When parroting social justice–infused jargon via internal statements to employees and outwardly facing corporate accounts—"there's still more work to be done," after all—becomes commonplace, a recusal may look like you're saying that the grave injustices that plague society are fine and not worth fixing. But a recusal ought to be seen as an admission that a particular company isn't qualified to offer solutions for a problem of bad policy or distorted incentives; or an admission that the people who chose to work for said company did not consent to advancing a particular slate of political priorities; or maybe simply a statement that a particular company has chosen to do something else with its time, because that's its damn prerogative. Just as companies are well within their rights to wokify themselves, they should also be free to opt out, and employees who have disdain for that choice have a right to seek employment elsewhere—maybe with the help of a few months of severance, courtesy of Armstrong.

"Basecamp pulls a Coinbase and decides to exclude marginalized people by prohibiting 'political' discussions at work, despite our lives and existence being inherently political," tweeted Liz Fong-Jones, principal developer advocate at Honeycomb. But there wasn't any indication that marginalized people will be excluded from companies like these, and there's no reason to expect a racial or sexual minority to be less capable of the situational awareness needed to understand when to talk politics versus when a conversation ought to serve more relevant work-related ends.

Critics have raised objections that people for whom politics is central to their identity may be stifled—a queer person might not be able to speak about their spouse at work; a parent might not be able to talk about public schools; a transgender person might not be able to get their colleagues to call them by their desired pronouns. And what about issues with pay, time off, or workplace sexual misconduct? But all of these feel like deliberate stretches, and the Basecamp heads have clarified that this policy will not be applied with disregard to labor-related issues. There's an enormous difference between engaging in good etiquette (calling people by the pronouns they prefer, using the proper term for their spouse, etc.) and engaging in work-unrelated political discourse. Adults can generally tell the difference, and the message seems clear and simple: Focus mostly on work when you're at work, please and thank you.

When tech leaders announce an aspiration to disentangle work from politics, they're acknowledging that homogeneity of political beliefs within a workplace is a myth. There will often be employees who disagree with a company's political statements. Such workers are often kowtowed into silence, knowing they'll face unforeseen costs for stirring the pot, or pushed into stewing in their own resentment if they feel there's no way to speak up. That type of resentment can push even well-meaning people with principled objections into bitterness. When your company that sells email tracking software suddenly has a party line on things like reparations and the Green New Deal, it's perfectly reasonable for the leaders to reconsider, back off, and say Nope, that's not what we're qualified to speak on, that's not why we're here.