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Basecamp goes viral after CEO bans politics at work

Yessi Bello-Perez

Leader

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

Unleash Your Culture Basecamp has made headlines for all the wrong reasons.

  • Basecamp’s company blog post about culture and employee performance has gone viral.
  • We take a look at the new raft of measures announced by the company’s CEO.
  • Here’s an overview at some of the Twitter chatter.

With much of the world facing deep political divides, one founder’s solution for unity in the workplace has gone viral — albeit for the wrong reasons.

The blog post, by Basecamp’s CEO and co-founder Jason Fried, details a raft of measures explaining how the productivity software company will handle social politics at work.

“At Basecamp, we treat our company as a product. It’s not a rigid thing that exists, it’s a flexible, malleable idea that evolves. We aren’t stuck with what we have, we can create what we want. Just as we improve products through iteration, we iterate on our company too.

“Recently, we’ve made some internal company changes, which, taken in total, collectively feel like a full version change. It deserves an announcement,” says Fried in the post.

As part of the measures, Basecamp employees will not:

  • Be able to have societal and political discussions on the 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.

“t’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.

  • Have 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 judgment.”

  • Have 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 {Heinemeier Hansson, CTO and co-founder].

“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.”

  • 360 performance reviews

“Employee performance reviews used to be straightforward. A meeting with your manager or team lead, direct feedback, and recommendations for improvement. Then a few years ago we made it hard. Worse, really. We introduced 360s, which required peers to provide feedback on peers.

“The problem is, peer feedback is often positive and reassuring, which is fun to read but not very useful. Assigning peer surveys started to feel like assigning busy work. Manager/employee feedback should be flowing pretty freely back and forth throughout the year. No need to add performative paperwork on top of that natural interaction. So we’re done with 360s, too.”

Other new measures included “no more lingering or dwelling on past decisions,” and “no forgetting what we do here,” which refers to the company’s purpose and mission.

Basecamp goes viral on Twitter

It wasn’t long before people started reacting on Twitter.

At the time of press, some 20,000 Twitter users were discussing the blog post.

Basecamp replies

Following the reaction online, Heinemeier Hansson published another post where he went into slightly more detail to justify the new decisions.

“Jason announced a raft of changes we’ve made to Basecamp earlier today. By far the most controversial is a new etiquette around societal politics at work, and the stances we’ll take as a company. So to expand on that, here’s a segment from what I wrote internally on that topic, as part of the announcement to employees at Basecamp,” Heinemeier Hansson says in the post.

As cliché as it may sound, he adds, these are very difficult times in many places of the world, and in America in particular. “We are constantly confronted with terrible tragedies pulled into polarized political fights, and egged on by social media to engage.”

“There are many places to be involved, exposed, and engaged in those conversations. Basecamp shouldn’t be one of those places,” he continued.

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.

“You shouldn’t have to wonder if staying out of it means you’re complicit or stepping into it means you’re a target. That is difficult enough outside of work but almost impossible at work.

“By trying to have the debates around such incredibly sensitive societal politics inside the company, we’re setting ourselves up for strife, with little chance of actually changing anyone’s mind. These types of discussions are so difficult that even if we were having them at the best of times, together in person, with trust batteries fully charged, we’d struggle. And we have none of those advantages right now, so it’s not a surprise the results have been poor,” the CTO added.

So, what’s the problem?

It’s important to note that Basecamp isn’t the first and only company to make a similar move.

Back in October 2020, Brian Armstrong, the CEO of Silicon Valley-based cryptocurrency exchange and broker Coinbase told employees that he wouldn’t stand for politics and people championing social issues at work.

Speaking candidly, Armstrong said he would gladly offer severance packages to employees who weren’t comfortable with the new company policy of political neutrality in the workplace.

In a letter to workers, the CEO said: “Life is too short to work at a company that you aren’t excited about. Hopefully, this package helps create a win-win outcome for those who choose to opt-out.”  

In simple terms, the issue is that the approach taken by Coinbase and Basecamp is in conflict with many other companies who actively encourage employees to get involved in key societal, racial, and political discussions.

On a deeper level, this new approach ultimately goes against everything we now associate with the future of work — employees feeling more empowered, the notion of purpose and belonging, the need to ensure diversity, equity, and inclusion are at the core of every hiring and company decision.

So, if employees can’t bring them whole selves to work, how are companies meant to move forward and improve not just how they treat employees but also their contribution to society.

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