Anyone following American politics will know that the nation has become extremely polarised and this has spread into every aspect of society. But recently there is a push to get back to a situation where companies aren’t political instruments but rather just places you work.
This shouldn’t be surprising, as the dominant ideology in the past years has been based around Critical Theory, an anti-scientific screed that posits everyone against everyone else. But it still is surprising because it has taken so long to get here and with almost every university, school or major company taken over by CT, little hope seemed left.
Some months ago Coinbase – now a very successful IPO – made headlines by stating that social activism was no longer acceptable at work. Well, some headlines were claims about the company being racist but considering this is normal practice whenever someone rejects CT, it seems to have just been that – an unsubstantiated claim.
Now Basecamp (formerly 37signals) has followed suit:
[…] we’re asking everyone, including Jason and me, to refrain from using our company Basecamp or HEY to discuss societal politics at work effective immediately.
— David Heinemeier Hansson, “Basecamp’s new etiquette regarding societal politics at work“
The whole announcement is definitely worth a read, of nothing else for what it is a reaction against:
1. No more societal and political discussions on our company Basecamp account. Today’s social and political waters are especially choppy. 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. These are difficult enough waters to navigate in life, but significantly more so at work. It’s become too much. It’s a major distraction. It saps our energy, and redirects our dialog towards dark places. It’s not healthy, it hasn’t served us well. And we’re done with it on our company Basecamp account where the work happens. People can take the conversations with willing co-workers to Signal, Whatsapp, or even a personal Basecamp account, but it can’t happen where the work happens anymore.
2. No more paternalistic benefits. For years we’ve offered a fitness benefit, a wellness allowance, a farmer’s market share, and continuing education allowances. They felt good at the time, but we’ve had a change of heart. It’s none of our business what you do outside of work, and it’s not Basecamp’s place to encourage certain behaviors — regardless of good intention. By providing funds for certain things, we’re getting too deep into nudging people’s personal, individual choices. So we’ve ended these benefits, and, as compensation, paid every employee the full cash value of the benefits for this year. In addition, we recently introduced a 10% profit sharing plan to provide direct compensation that people can spend on whatever they’d like, privately, without company involvement or judgement.
3. No more committees. For nearly all of our 21 year existence, we were proudly committee-free. No big working groups making big decisions, or putting forward formalized, groupthink recommendations. No bureaucracy. But recently, a few sprung up. No longer. We’re turning things back over to the person (or people) who were distinctly hired to make those decisions. 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. A long-standing group of managers called “Small Council” will disband — when we need advice or counsel we’ll ask individuals with direct relevant experience rather than a pre-defined group at large. Back to basics, back to individual responsibility, back to work.
— Jason Fried, “Changes at Basecamp“
Unsurprisingly this pissed off a lot of people who believe that companies should and must act for their political beliefs, so the racist card was dug up again. But reading “What really happened at Basecamp” doesn’t really support that narrative, just like the stories about Coinbase all ended up seeming like disgruntled former employees letting out steam. Sure, Hansson, whom I met before he became a successful businessman and likewise racing driver, does come of as a bit petty in the one-sided version but when he replies he seems quite level-headed.
Anyway, as is evident, I am biased towards companies choosing to focus on their business. Not the Milton Friedman way so I should probably elaborate on that at some time. Later.
Some have argued that there will be a self-selection process in the coming years; activist employees will flow towards companies where their kind of activism is acceptable or even encouraged at work, while the rest of us will flow towards companies that focus on work. And when we look at Fried’s last item, I think I see more chance of financial success at the non-activist company:
6. No forgetting what we do here. We make project management, team communication, and email software. We are not a social impact company. Our impact is contained to what we do and how we do it. We write business books, blog a ton, speak regularly, we open source software, we give back an inordinate amount to our industry given our size. And we’re damn proud of it. Our work, plus that kind of giving, should occupy our full attention. 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 our topics at work — they’re not what we collectively do here. Employees are free to take up whatever cause they want, support whatever movements they’d like, and speak out on whatever horrible injustices are being perpetrated on this group or that (and, unfortunately, there are far too many to choose from). But that’s their business, not ours. We’re in the business of making software, and a few tangential things that touch that edge. We’re responsible for ourselves. That’s more than enough for us.