Tech

A Tech Company Tried to Limit What Employees Talk About at Work. It Didn’t Go Well.

When leaders of the product management and communication software company Basecamp announced last week that it would curb political conversations at work, fallout came fast.

Tech employees, workplace consultants and politicians alike assailed the decision on

Twitter

and LinkedIn, though other company leaders called it a courageous move. Some employees publicly threatened to quit. Ultimately, the Chicago-based company offered buyouts to its staff of about 50. A significant number of employees decided to leave.

Though small, privately held Basecamp is influential among tech companies—its founders have written popular books about work and held theirs up as a model workplace, with shortened weeks in summer and paying everyone working in the same role the same salary. Its attempt to tell employees not to engage in discussions on societal and political issues during work shows how, after years of encouraging teams to “bring their whole selves to work,” some companies want employees to bring a little less.

Years ago Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Facebook Inc. led the way in embracing open discussions of sensitive topics at work, providing internal message boards, town halls and other forums for employee opinions. Many others followed suit, and leaders continue to take stands on social issues and give employees arenas to express themselves.

Recently, some companies have gone the other way—most notably cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase Global Inc., which last fall declared its culture “apolitical.” Chief Executive Brian Armstrong wrote that the company wouldn’t debate causes or political candidates internally and that employees shouldn’t expect Coinbase to take public stances on their own personal beliefs.

Google and Facebook, citing a desire to curb internal tensions, have also moved to limit political conversation on work platforms.

With Basecamp, co-founder and CEO Jason Fried cited “especially choppy” social and political waters and said such dialogue had become a major distraction. In an open letter, one employee who had been a part of recent diversity and inclusion efforts at the company called the move “oppressive” and “silencing.” Multiple employees announced over Twitter that they had quit.

Reporting in Platformer, a newsletter about tech, highlighted some of the internal issues around diversity, equity and inclusion that led the founders to institute the ban.

Many tech companies took a public stance supporting the Black Lives Matter movement following the death of George Floyd.



Photo:

Bridget Bennett for The Wall Street Journal

The episode laid bare a simmering debate at tech companies large and small over how to define what is political, whether such issues can be separated from diversity and inclusion, and how colleagues should engage on those issues.

David Heinemeier Hansson, Basecamp’s co-founder, told The Wall Street Journal in an email that since the company’s announcement he had received “an avalanche of supporting emails from executives and employees that work at companies where societal politics are taking over more and more of the domain, and if you’re sitting with the wrong ideology, it’s very intimidating.”

Asking people to compartmentalize is hard after the past year’s political upheaval and the blending of professional and personal life brought on by remote work in the pandemic, said Glenn Kelman, CEO of Redfin Corp., a tech-driven real-estate brokerage based in Seattle.

Redfin took a public stance supporting Black Lives Matter following the death of George Floyd and subsequent protests. Employees with differing views then got into a debate at work, and Mr. Kelman said he found himself called upon to referee. “I wasn’t trained to do that,” he said.

Redfin now approaches broader social issues case by case. Mr. Kelman said the company will take a public stance and voice support for employees internally on issues of fairness, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, even if some employees view that support as a political gesture. Mr. Kelman acknowledges that the system isn’t perfect.

“We tried to come up with a rule,” he said. “And it turns out it’s impossible.”

At Harmon Brothers LLC, a Provo, Utah-based digital marketing startup of 50, employees were posting links to partisan news articles on company channels in messaging app Slack this past election cycle and then getting into arguments. CEO Benton Crane worried that interacting remotely was deteriorating the quality of the political debates they used to have in person.

On Slack, “people were much sharper in their tone,” he said. “They were less empathetic of who they were communicating with.”

In March, the company made a new rule: employees who want to post a link to the company Slack must first make a video explaining their thoughts about the link; anyone who wants to respond must record a video of their own.

U.S. corporate leaders have found themselves increasingly at odds with both the Democratic and Republican parties. WSJ’s Gerald F. Seib explains how they find themselves in an uncomfortable position. Photo illustration: Laura Kammermann

While it’s still early, Mr. Crane said hardly anyone is fighting on Slack anymore.

“The policy has almost had the effect of a ban but without the negative baggage that comes along with a ban of people feeling like their voice is being stifled,” he said.

Facebook made changes to its internal policies surrounding speech about political and social justice issues at work after hearing feedback from employees that they wanted more control over their exposure to these discussions. Last September, the company made it so employees could opt in or out of seeing such content in their work feed. Facebook said the changes have helped work-related conversations become more constructive while giving employees space for personal expression.

Google was early in promoting a work culture where debates were common. After years of internal fights and several lawsuits, including from conservatives who felt discriminated against, Google attempted to rein in political discussions on its platforms in 2019. A spokeswoman said the community guidelines Google added support healthy and open discussion.

The issues at the center of these debates can be deeply personal for many people who bristle at what they view as efforts to conflate dialogue about diversity and inclusion with partisan disagreements.

When it comes to political and social justice issues for people of color and underrepresented groups, “You can’t detach from it because that’s who you are,” said Lekisha Middleton, founder of the Good Success Network, an organizational consulting and executive coaching firm that works mostly with tech companies on D & I issues.

Ms. Middleton, who is Black, said that bans on political debates can be seen as an attempt to silence difficult conversations on sensitive topics.

“That’s just not the answer,” she said of the bans.

Coinbase had about 60 employees take severance packages after its decision. People promptly used the Basecamp announcement as a recruiting mechanism.

One marketing employee from Microsoft Corp. owned-LinkedIn addressed Basecamp employees directly on the career networking platform, telling them she was hiring and that they would be free to bring their whole selves to work. (LinkedIn’s own CEO apologized last year after an anonymous town hall meeting in the aftermath of the killing of

George Floyd

led to questions he later called appalling).

Some employees of Conductor Inc., a New York-based marketing-software startup, told CEO and co-founder Seth Besmertnik they would rather focus on work than politics. Others have said that they are uncomfortable with conversations about political and social issues because they fear saying the wrong thing.

“They’re not out there being racist but they also might not be the most equipped to have conversations in this area,” he said.

Mr. Besmertnik said he talks frequently with the leaders of Conductor’s employee resource groups about how to navigate sensitive situations and to make everyone feel safe.

Mr. Fried, Basecamp’s CEO and co-founder, declined to discuss what happened at the company, saying he was taking a pause, “so I can focus all my energy inwards while employees are making decisions.”

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