The leaders of Chicago-based software company Basecamp don’t always follow the playbook.
Basecamp has shunned raising money from venture capitalists, typically a rite of passage for most tech firms. CEO Jason Fried and cofounder David Heinemeier Hansson, wrote a book called Remote: Office Not Required…in 2013.
But very few expected when, on Monday, Fried posted a blog on the company website in which he banned “societal and political discussions” from Basecamp’s internal chats.
- “Sensitivities are at 11, and every discussion remotely related to politics, advocacy, or society at large quickly spins away from pleasant.”
- “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.”
Ahead of the times…or self-defeating?
Basecamp’s directive to ban political debate internally drew loads of criticism from both inside and outside the company. Some tech leaders, like Facebook cofounder and current Asana CEO Dustin Moskovitz, said instead of pushing uncomfortable issues to the sidelines, companies should “actively create spaces for these conversations.”
Some employees at Basecamp itself, according to the journalist Casey Newton, who interviewed about a half dozen of them, said the new policy was apparently made in response to a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) push made by some workers at the company. Hansson told Newton he found those conversations to be distracting from Basecamp’s primary goal of making good products.
So it wasn’t really about arguments over Trump or immigration or climate change (you can find Fried and Hansson regularly championing progressive causes online), but instead about how Basecamp was responding to its own efforts to confront issues of diversity and inclusion in its own workplace.
Will more companies follow?
Before Basecamp banned political debate, there was Coinbase. Last September, the crypto exchange’s CEO Brian Armstrong pioneered the “no political talk at work” trend to ensure the company remained focused on its business mission.
You can imagine the conversations on Election Day…
Tyler Denk on Twitter
After Fried announced Basecamp’s new policy, Armstrong tweeted: “Another mission focused company 👏 it takes courage in these times.”
Zoom out: While they haven’t gone as far as Coinbase or Basecamp, other tech companies have put up guardrails around what employees can or cannot talk about in internal chats.
- In 2019, Google discouraged employees from talking politics in company forums.
- Last September, Facebook rolled out new guidelines that moderated political speech on its internal messaging service.
- Pinterest took down a Slack channel that was used to question leadership around bias and pay equity, the Washington Post reported.
Bottom line: Tech investor Paul Graham said he predicts “most successful companies will follow Coinbase’s lead” or else get lapped by those who do. But when corporate execs are increasingly speaking out around issues such as voting rights and racial injustice, they may find it more difficult to stop employees from doing the same.
About one-third of Basecamp’s ~60 employees reportedly accepted buyouts on Friday.