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Talking Politics at Work: Lessons from the Basecamp Memo

One company’s decision to remove politics from the workplace cost them a third of their workforce and sparked a heated debate

There are two topics you should never bring up at work: politics and religion.

I remember receiving some variation of this advice early on in my career. The person giving the advice, a manager and mentor, meant well when he told me to steer clear of topics that could lead to strife with other employees. Talking too much about sensitive issues, he reasoned, could cost me my job.

Better to just avoid it altogether.

So that’s what I did. Like countless workers before me, I tucked my personal beliefs deep down — far behind a polished professional exterior. If a colleague tried to bring up a current event, I would deflect. If my boss asked what I did over the weekend, I would offer up only generalities.

I didn’t even feel comfortable talking about my high school years because I attended a religious-based institution.

It felt stifling at times, not being able to talk about myself. But I was convinced it was necessary to stay in good graces. That nothing positive would come from bringing too much of my personal life and beliefs to work.

And then the winds began to change.

Social issues became corporate issues as companies worked to navigate a rapidly dividing country and the needs of their employees.

One situation that stands out in my mind was the fight over North Carolina’s House Bill 2 — better known as the “bathroom bill.” In it, the state of North Carolina required all citizens to use the bathroom associated with the gender listed on their birth certificate. And the bill’s introduction didn’t go over well.

It was seen as a direct attack on the transgender community. And people rose up in response. Companies like Wells Fargo, Citigroup, Bank of America, and Deutsche Bank put out statements decrying the bill. Paypal and other Silicon Valley tech companies did the same. Pearl Jam and Bruce Springsteen even canceled concerts in protest.

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Politics had begun to enter the workplace arena in a new way. And with the 2016 election of Donald Trump, companies began to take stronger stances in the realm of politics. CEOs made very public statements on Trump’s climate policy, immigration restrictions, and attempts to reduce LGBT+ rights (just to name a few). And many in the workplace — myself included — began to pay more and more attention to the social and political issues of the day.

We also started talking about politics at work, breaking down the informal barriers that had existed before. There were still articles with headlines like, “Why Should You Avoid Political Discussions in the Workplace?” But workers simply weren’t paying them much mind.

A 2020 survey, for example, found that 78% of Americans were talking about politics at work in the lead-up to the election.

In the post-Trump era, there are some signs corporate leaders are stepping back from political talk. At the same time, many of the hot-button social and political issues remain divisive. This leads us to a situation where companies can feel stuck in limbo — unsure how to address political talk at work.

Today, we’re going to take a look at the recent Basecamp memo and its fallout. What it means for the company, its employees, and the future of political talk at work. And any lessons we can glean from one company’s decision to move in a different direction.

Basecamp Memo: A Short Overview

If you aren’t familiar, Basecamp is a software company that rose to a small level of notoriety within the startup community in the 2010s. The company branded itself in the marketplace in two ways.

First, it was an early entrant into the project management software space with its namesake application, Basecamp. Before Asana and Trello and even Slack were startup stars, Basecamp was a tool relied upon for keeping small teams organized and on track.

The other key note for Basecamp was the company’s position as a remote-first company. In 2010, two of the senior leaders at the company, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hanson, published a book titled Rework. Rework argued for a fully remote work team, and provided a number of recommendations on how to manage distributed employees.

The book was prescient— especially considering everything that’s happened in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic — and immediately shot up to the New York Times Bestseller list.

Picture of the cover of Rework.
(photo source)

Basecamp was a company with a lot of forward momentum.

In the intervening years, the company has stayed small and made a number of strategic shifts as the marketplace flooded with competitors. But there were few signs, from the outside at least, that the company was headed for a mass exodus of their employees.

That is, until last week.

For the sake of brevity, here are the highlights.

And if you want to dive into an exquisite level of detail, you can find a list of additional readings at the end of this section.

  • On Monday, April 26, CEO Jason Fried made a post to the company’s internal communication board. Among other things, the post laid out a new company-wide policy on societal and political discussions on the company Basecamp account.
  • The new policy, it’s important to note, was limited to internal company communication channels. And Fried made sure to note that this wasn’t a statement on discussions outside the workplace (or on the Internet). You can read the post in full here.
  • By Friday, April 30, the Basecamp memo had made national news and had also sparked controversy within the company. Fried convened a virtual all-hands call where he said he was sorry for the way the policy had been rolled out, but not for the policy itself.
  • All-in-all, more than 20 of the company’s 57 employees left last week. This accounts for more than 30% of their total staff. Employees who left were given a severance package based on their tenure. And the company has since extended the availability of severance packages for employees.
  • Fried has made additional apologies this week, saying, “we have to learn a lot.” But there has been no clear direction provided on how the company will address the new policy.

Readings:

Lesson #1: Leadership Requires Understanding

Basecamp’s leadership team made a number of missteps over the past week — and in the months leading up to the announcement — but the throughline of each of them seems to be a lack of understanding.

Leaders noticed emerging issues and, in some cases, took aim to address them before fully understanding the context. Before appreciating the source of the issue and the lens through which team members would view the situation.

For example, much of the build-up to the new policy seems to stem from an internal list of customers who had “funny names.” From all reports, this list was passed around by employees and called out a number of customers with names of Asian or African descent.

This list sounds, from an outsider's perspective, inappropriate at best. And racially prejudicial at worst. It certainly needed to be dealt with by the company’s top leadership.

However, the statement’s coming from internal employees describe a different kind of situation. For starters, it sounds as though Basecamp’s leadership team knew about the list for years, but didn’t take steps to remove it from use or educate team members on the impact of sharing this kind of content.

Instead, it was an employee who took the initial step of calling out the list.

To make matters worse, the employee was admonished for “catastrophizing” the situation and publicly shamed for having previously contributed to the list himself. Rather than seeking to understand the aim of the employee's actions (in this case, promoting inclusion), leadership fell prey to frustration.

As one employee later said …

They [Jason & David] really don’t care what employees have to say. If they don’t think it’s an issue, it’s not an issue. If they don’t experience it, then it’s not real.

Employees shouldn’t have to shout from the rooftops to be heard. (Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash)

The issues surrounding the “funny names” list were just the tip of the iceberg at Basecamp. More troubling were reports that talked about a failed diversity and inclusion committee. Although the leadership team identified D&I as an area for improvement, and more than a third of employees volunteered to be part of a D&I committee, no progress was made.

The committee was, unfortunately, disbanded at the same time the new policy was brought into place. And the company took steps to silence political and social conversation rather than address the root cause of the issues.

What’s most troubling about these two stories is the fact that employees are ready and willing to make changes.

Basecamp employees saw the need for diversity and a higher level of inclusion in the workplace. And a tremendous number of them raised their hands to make a difference. Yet, at every turn, it was the leadership team putting up barricades.

Leadership, in its purest form, is about equipping employees to do good work. It’s about understanding their needs and adapting the workplace to meet employees where they’re at.

The Basecamp leadership team understood that principle when it came to remote work. And they did so long before other companies caught on.

It’s sad, then, to see the company’s leadership failing to understand the needs and expectations of their team. And, without a basic level of understanding, it’s no wonder team members started heading for the door.

Lesson #2: Politics are Personal

The other angle to look at the Basecamp story through is the lens of politics in the workplace. Specifically, the emerging sense that political and social beliefs are becoming intertwined with identity.

Said another way: for many workers, politics are personal.

Now, this certainly isn’t a publication focused on political analysis. But there can be little doubt that the politicization of topics like racial injustice and LGBT+ rights has driven an increased sense that politics are personal.

For many workers, the image of politics no longer focuses on complex foreign policy or economic workings. Instead, it focuses on friends and family in the BIPOC and LGBT+ communities who are suffering discrimination, being physically harmed, or having their rights taken away.

It’s about people and their stories.

And that’s personal.

Basecamp’s CEO says, “every discussion remotely related to politics, advocacy, or society at large quickly spins away from pleasant.” And he calls political discussion, “a major distraction.” But do employees care?

If politics are personal — and the stakes of political discussions are the lives and rights of those you care about — what’s a little unpleasant conversation? And how are employees supposed to just turn off the parts of them that care so much about these issues?

While this certainly isn’t the way every employee thinks about political talk — or the framing of social issues as political talk in the first place — there seems to be a strong contingent at Basecamp that feels that discussion is still worth having. Even if it’s unpleasant.

Folks are willing to march and fight more than ever for what they believe.

Why should that stop at the workplace?

The colorful palate of a Pride parade. (Photo by Ian Taylor on Unsplash)

The takeaway from Basecamp’s attempt to curb political discussion is clear. Even if talking politics at the office is causing distractions, the alternative is far worse. It’s the alternative of employees bringing only a fraction of their personal beliefs to work. Or leaving to go somewhere else.

And shutting down political discussion isn’t the only option available.

Consider this alternative approach developed by The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). In a detailed article, SHRM describes a number of scenarios where employees engage in political discussion at the workplace and how leadership teams should handle it.

Rather than shutting down the conversation, HR teams and leaders keep an eye on the conversation. They monitor for signs of harassment or abuse, and they don’t allow disagreement to become a “shield for harassment or an inability to work cooperatively with others.”

At the same time, they recognize the value of political discourse and of using contentious conversations as training opportunities. They use the discourse as a chance to set an example at the top of the house.

That’s true leadership.

Conclusion

It’s clear from the Basecamp example, that in today’s environment companies must think long and hard about how to handle political talk at the office.

  • First and foremost, they must seek to understand their employees and put in place positive diversity and inclusion practices.
  • From there, they should recognize that, for many employees, politics are personal. And shutting down that dialogue is shutting down a part of each and every worker.
  • Remember: there are other ways to handle contentious conversations. Leading from the front, and using difficult conversations as teaching opportunities is a great place to start.
  • Lastly, failure to get these policies right can have disastrous results for a company. Basecamp leadership failed to appreciate the impact of their decision, and their company suffered as a result.

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