How Basecamp Got It Wrong
Banning the discussion of politics at work is sweeping your problems under the rug.
I have been a fan of the project management platform Basecamp for years. I selected the product in 2014 to manage a team of analysts and developers at a software company. Easy to learn, easy to collaborate, it had everything we needed.
I read both books written by co-founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson. I was so enamored with the company culture and their approach to work that when Basecamp HQ in Chicago hosted a forum led by Fried, I attended. I even went up to him after and chatted briefly about remote work.
Every discussion remotely related to politics, advocacy, or society at large quickly spins away from pleasant…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.
My reaction? What a narrow way to view work. It further marginalizes people by telling them to “check your problems at the door.” Work becomes confined to a place we go rather than something we do as an integral part of our lives.
There is a difference in “politics” when we discuss policies about how to spend our tax dollars versus policies that cause harm to a group of people. It can’t all be tossed under a single umbrella as “politics.”
To be clear: the only people who benefit from this type of policy are those that face no discomfort in their lives. And likely were uncomfortable when their views were challenged.
What baffles me about Basecamp’s open admission of their internal problems and misguided attempt to address the issue is that they have turned it into an employee problem, rather than a failure of management. Long gone are the days of unspoken (or in Basecamp’s case, spoken) rules about not talking politics at work.
Basecamp, as a company, is no longer going to weigh-in publicly on societal political affairs, outside those that directly connect to the business.
Customers now are savvier. They pay attention. For many, the product is only half of the equation. The other half is looking at the company behind the product — and how they position themselves in the larger world. Open stances denouncing racism, misogyny, violence… it matters. If Basecamp thinks that ignoring social issues is going to be good for business, I hope that customers will prove them wrong.
Not only does it matter to potential customers, but it also matters to employees. Instead of taking a stand, Basecamp is hiding behind an archaic position of keeping work and life separate. As if people could leave their race and gender at home. As if the problems will go away by not talking about them. As if those things don’t matter. Instead of forcing employees to remain silent, Basecamp should be leading the conversation. Instead, amidst backlash on Twitter, the co-founders have doubled down on their stance.
And if Basecamp finds that their employees continue to be uncomfortable discussing social issues, then maybe that says something about the type of people that work there. “Heated discussions” can only mean that people sat on both sides of issues, including those that further marginalized their colleagues.
The decision and public announcement certainly say something about the people running the company.