The problem with Basecamp’s apolitical stance

April 28, 2021, 2:40 PM UTC

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Not long after the murder of George Floyd, Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong came out with a bombshell blog post declaring that the cryptocurrency exchange would not engage in social activism. Such discussions, the chief executive wrote, would distract from the company mission. 

But such a message has its own way of being political—especially in a time when companies are increasingly being called upon to advocate for social causes (the reaction to voting laws in Georgia being among them). 

I think that tension remains true months later. But let’s step away from the question of whether this was the right move or not, and look at another question as Basecamp follows in Coinbase’s footsteps: What does it actually mean to be apolitical within a company?

For the uninitiated: Earlier this week, the founders of Chicago-based Basecamp released a blog post of their own that the company would no longer engage in “societal and political discussions” while employee discussions around such issues should be taken to personal accounts. 

Basecamp employees took the unusual step of publicly showing their discontent. “I don’t agree with the changes announced today, and I’m sad and upset,” Head of Design Jonas Downey wrote on Twitter Monday. Senior Policy Analyst Jane Yang authored a lengthy blog post Tuesday while on medical leave calling its two founders “dictators.” When asked about Yang’s accusations by Term Sheet, Founder and CTO David Heinemeier Hansson responded, “We can’t recognize this overall picture as presented by Jane. Being her ‘oppressors’ and what not. These are her impressions and feelings. But we feel for her, and hope she recovers swiftly.” 

Coinbase’s Armstrong and startup investor Jason Calacanis, on the other hand, cheered the move from Basecamp, with the former saying, “It takes courage in these times.”

But shortly after publishing the blog post, Basecamp ran into an issue that muddied its message: Twitter users noted that the company itself has dived into policy discussions before by criticizing Apple’s 30% tax on in-app purchases.  

So what kinds of discussions are considered, well, political no-nos in Basecamp? Does the company specifically consider talks about race political? After all, a discussion over employees mocking non-Eurocentric names on a customer list reportedly helped lead to the Basecamp memo, according to the Verge. Can employees discuss paternity care, an issue that links both company policy and politics? What is the punishment for failing to follow such guidelines? Finally, who gets to decide?

Basecamp revised its original post several times, and then added another post to address these questions, placing topics like antitrust and privacy in the yes bucket. “If you’re in doubt as to whether your choice of forum or topic for a discussion is appropriate, please ask before posting,” Hansson continued. “But if you make a mistake, it’s not the end of the world. Someone will gently remind you of the etiquette, and we’ll move on. This isn’t some zero-tolerance, max-consequences new policy.”

In short, there’s really no clear answer as to what can and cannot be discussed within the company. But whatever does get decided will come, it seems, from the top.

GETTING FIRED OVER LSD?: On Tuesday, marketing startup Iterable announced that CEO Justin Zhu had been pushed aside due to violation of company policy. The reason, according Zhu, was primarily because the founder had taken a small amount of LSD before a meeting in 2019, per Bloomberg (the CEO had been experimenting with microdosing, which purportedly boosts creativity or concentration). This is… interesting. While LSD is an illegal drug in the U.S., it has also gained acceptance among Silicon Valley circles. Apple’s Steve Jobs was famous for taking full-blown trips to fire up the neurons. 

Then came this story from the Information, reporting that investor Index Ventures had shown dissatisfaction with Zhu before his ouster, and had sold about $92 million worth of shares—about half its stake—to Silver Lake Partners. In short, seems like there’s more to the story than meets the eye.   

Lucinda Shen
Twitter: @shenlucinda


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