from the you're-not-actually-helping dept
On Monday, Basecamp CEO Jason Fried came out with a blog post announcing not only a cutback in employee benefits, but that it would be banning social and political conversations on the company’s platforms as well:
“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.”
In an accompanying post, CTO David Heinemeier Hansson added a little more context:
“There are many places to be involved, exposed, and engaged in those conversations. Basecamp shouldn’t be one of those places. Basecamp should be a place where employees can come to work with colleagues of all backgrounds and political convictions without having to deal with heavy political or societal debates unconnected to that work.”
While the executives’ public-facing posts make it sound like the company (and all of its 60-odd employees) was somehow awash with uncontrollable off-topic partisan division, insiders are telling a different story. According to employees, the saga actually started when employees began to balk at a running, 10-year old list of customer names being consistently shared among customer service reps because some of the names “sounded funny.” As a cultural reckoning over race, speech and corporate responsibility grew, employees wanted to apparently have candid conversations about mocking folks on the list:
For more than 10 years, some Basecamp employees maintained an open list of customer names that sounded ?funny? to them.
Last year, amid a broader reckoning over diversity and inclusion, that list didn?t seem quite so funny any more. And employees wanted to talk about it.
— Casey Newton (@CaseyNewton) April 28, 2021
Some of the names on the list were laughed at for harmless reasons. But given some of the names on the lists were of Asian and African decent, some employees felt uncomfortable. So in other words, the “ban on politics” was really a ban on having basic internal conversations about the company’s own juvenile behavior and whether Basecamp could do better as a company.
It should be obvious that it’s unrealistic to believe that in an era of daily police brutality, racist violence, mass shootings, a plague (and idiotic politicization of said plague), rampant corruption, and life-threatening climate change triggered events, that “don’t talk about reality on your work accounts” is a serious and effective adult position you can take. Especially in an era where governments are seemingly incapable of meeting the needs of their people, and companies are often foisted into political leadership roles (whether they like it or not).
The other problem, of course, is that the assumption that politics and work are isolated, separate entities is just kind of naive:
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.“
The other, more notable problem is that banning political conversations is itself a political act, something noted by journalist Will Oremus:
Moderating and drawing boundaries on acceptable speech in the workplace is hard. Much easier to just make a sign that says "no politics" and point to that?as long as you're someone in power, someone well-served by the status quo, who doesn't want to have to justify or defend it.
— Will Oremus (@WillOremus) April 26, 2021
Someone who has a lot of power (CEOs making significant cash) telling others with less power and wealth to “not talk about politics” is itself an act of politics. It’s also an act of wishful thinking that protects and defends the status quo, whether the folks making the restrictions understand that or not. It’s an act that prioritizes the comfort of those who think politics is a gross distraction. Folks who don’t understand “politics” can often mean “I’d simply like to not be murdered for being black” or “I’d simply like to have clean drinking water” and that muzzling those worries at work is an additional kick to the groin.
If the status quo is a broken system that largely benefits wealthy white executives, then of course said executives would just prefer to see politics as this superfluous annoyance that should be muzzled and locked in the basement. But it’s a foolish distinction that’s not only not going to work, it’s only going to net you bad PR for not understanding how the world works.