Basecamp Demonstrates Why Businesses Must Carefully Handle Political and Social Discussions at Work

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politics in the office

Basecamp, a virtually unknown company to those outside the tech industry, burst onto front page news last month when approximately one-third of its employees announced their intention to accept a buyout shortly after a new policy was implemented banning discussions of social and political issues on internal chat forums. About a month later, more than half of the company’s employees have left.

The policy stemmed from a list of names that customer service representatives found funny. Some employees felt uncomfortable about the inclusion of African and Asian names, which led two employees to internally post an apology for contributing to the list. One apology included a link to the Anti-Defamation League’s Pyramid of Hate. Then, management stepped in.

Basecamp’s co-founder, David Hansson, wrote a post to the entire company accepting responsibility for allowing the list to continue, but took issue with the employee’s apology that included the Pyramid of Hate. Hansson’s post included excerpts of that employee’s old chat logs and used a tone that some employees felt was dismissive and invalidating—so much so that two employees complained to HR. The company also disbanded a group of employees who had volunteered to work on issues related to diversity and inclusion.

Less than two weeks later, Basecamp’s CEO Jason Fried banned “societal and political discussions on our company Basecamp account,” which he announced in a public blog post. That post heralded an end to “paternalistic benefits” such as a fitness benefit and continuing education allowance, and ended committees and working groups that appeared to be focused on diversity and inclusion. Also included in the post was a commitment to “[n]o more lingering or dwelling on past decisions” so as to avoid “worrying ourselves into overthinking things.” On April 30, 2021, four days after the new policy went into effect, the company held a meeting to discuss the new policies and for employees to ask questions.

The meeting did not go well. Basecamp’s former Head of Project Strategy, Ryan Singer, made comments denying the existence of white supremacy and the rest of management failed to adequately handle the aftermath. Two employees reported having a visceral response and found themselves crying and screaming at their computer screens. Approximately a third of employees posted their intent to leave on Twitter that day. Singer resigned a few days later.

Basecamp has provided an example for employers of what not to do. Singling out employees in front of the entire company, disbanding diversity and inclusion committees, and banning societal and political discussions are all drastic measures. Employers need to remember a key rule of leadership: just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.

Creating policies that prohibit certain freedoms and privileges in the workplace is an especially sensitive subject. Before taking any drastic action on discussions of social and political issues in the workplace, consider the following:

  1. Listen to—and hear—your employees. In addition to holding an open-door policy for employees, schedule periodic meetings for check-ins with your workers to discuss their work environments and needs. Listen to what they have to say with an open mind, ask questions, and try to understand their perspective.
  1. Determine your company’s values. Basecamp’s CEO wrote, “We are not a social impact company. Our impact is contained to what we do and how we do it.” Do you and your fellow company leaders believe that? Many business owners and managers, including those not involved in the “social impact” space, believe that their actions in the marketplace carry moral weight. In order to consider how social and political issues should be addressed within the company, you need to have a clear sense of who you are and what values guide you. Once values are clarified for the business’ leaders, they can be clearly articulated to your employees and help guide policy-making.
  1. Form a committee to tackle the question. Although Basecamp disparaged the work of committees, many businesses find committees or working groups to be an effective and efficient means of developing policies and procedures. When it comes to social and political discussions, any committee should contain diverse representation. Diversity extends beyond race or gender to include viewpoint and ideology variety as well.
  1. Clearly articulate policy changes—and your underlying reasoning. Employees hate receiving decrees from on high or being left in the dark. If you are announcing a change in policy, do so in the manner best suited to reach your employees where they are. Perhaps one-on-ones with a manager or in small groups is best. Also make sure to explain why your policy is shifting. If you had a representative committee develop the policy, share that with your workforce. The thoughtfulness your company put into crafting a new policy will likely be appreciated by employees.

Businesses may have different responses to how to handle sensitive discussions in the workplace. What matters most is that employees have some voice in discussing any large changes and that they feel they are being heard. If done authentically, employees will know that even if a final policy does not reflect their particular desires, at least their employer values their insight and contributions.