- Chicago-based tech company Basecamp will no longer allow "societal and political discussions" on the company’s internal platform, Jason Fried, co-founder and CEO of Basecamp, announced in a blog post April 26. The company offered severance pay worth up to six months of employees’ salary "for those who cannot see a future at Basecamp under this new direction," David Heinemeier Hansson, a partner at the firm, revealed in a blog post two days later.
- "Today's social and political waters are especially choppy," Fried wrote in explanation of the decision. "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."
- News of the company’s decision immediately garnered widespread attention; by that evening, it was among the top trending topics on Twitter. Within days, close to one-third of employees announced their plans to leave the company. While the decision is among a raft of other changes Fried announced in his blog post — including an end to 360 reviews, workplace committees and "paternalistic benefits" — it has received the most discussion, as managers and employees debate the role of political discourse in the workplace. Fried later apologized for the experience, but did not walk back the change.
Americans have rarely been as divided as they are now, Pew Research has shown, and employers now find themselves in the position of trying to make decisions regarding political speech that satisfy employees who may be at odds. Casey Newton, a reporter at The Verge, spoke with employees at Basecamp who described the move to end political discourse at work as suppressive and dismissive of employee-led DEI efforts, while Hansson wrote in his blog in response to an earlier Verge piece of a "significant contingency" of employees who had raised "private flags" about an acrimonious culture, but were unwilling to speak openly for fear of being targeted.
The sequence of events surrounding the Basecamp story is reminiscent of that which befell crypto company Coinbase last fall. CEO Brian Armstrong also announced in a blog post that Coinbase would foster an "apolitical culture," also offered a severance package for those who wanted to leave following the new guidelines and also experienced a significant departure of employees.
The approach of Basecamp and Coinbase is one potential pathway for the workplace as both employees and employers have increasingly entered the political fray in recent years. The Society for Human Resource Management highlighted the rise in employee activism in September 2019, noting examples of employee actions at Walmart, Google, and Wayfair. Many companies have stated their support for the Black Lives Matter movement, and the recent passage of a controversial voting law in Georgia has further spurred corporate activism.
While employers have a legal right to ban political talk that isn’t for purposes of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection, Steven Bernstein, co-chair of Fisher Phillips' labor relations practice group, told HR Dive last summer, he said that the line between the two situations may be blurry.
"I think a lot of organizations are probably struggling with this same question" of whether to allow or moderate political discussion, Mike Hicks, chief marketing officer of Beezy, told HR Dive. Organizations are increasingly recognizing all employee voices as valid and providing forums such as company-wide town halls to address their questions and concerns, Hicks said, which can be effective for collaboration. "But now it’s transitioning to some of these bigger, global issues," he said.
Hicks suggested that Basecamp may have fallen into the trap of using its own product for every type of discussion, where developing alternative channels of communication might have been better. Stronger, demarcated boundaries could be a solution that doesn’t dispel political talk entirely, but also doesn’t force employees to engage. "It’s about allowing people a forum and place to have those different conversations in an area that is tangential to the professional," Hicks said. "Putting a structure around where it’s OK to have those types of conversations … employees respect that."