It was the culture memo heard ’round the tech world.
Last Monday, the “Changes at Basecamp” memo rolled out by the Chicago-based project management and team communication platform maker kicked off a week of debate (and more memos) about companies and their role in society. Leadership had moved to ban political speech on the company’s shared workplace software and end “paternalistic” benefits and committees. While it created upheaval that led to resignations inside Basecamp, the memo from an influential company is also drawing acrimony and condemnation well beyond the 60-person team and its home city.
For Joe Mechlinksi, founder of Fells Point-based consulting, membership and VC collective SHIFT, it comes down to power — not just between company leaders and employees, but the role of business in society.
“There’s more than surface tension,” he said. “This is a tug of war.”
In the memo that framed the company as a product, CEO Jason Fried outlined a “vision change” pertaining specifically to the company’s internal team. The first? “No more societal and political discussions on our company Basecamp account.”
“You shouldn’t have to wonder if staying out of it means you’re complicit, or wading into it means you’re a target,” Fried wrote in the post. “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.”
Among the other changes, Fried wrote that Basecamp was ending “paternalistic benefits” for wellness, farmer’s market share and continuing education, writing that, “we’re getting too deep into nudging people’s personal, individual choices.” And it ended committees that made recommendations on certain issues, specifically citing diversity, equity and inclusion.
But reporting by Platformer journalist Casey Newton found that the move traced back as far as 2009, to a list of names started by customer service reps that “amid the ongoing cultural reckoning over speech and corporate responsibility, increasingly looked inappropriate, and often racist,” Newton reported. An internal memo shared in a subsequent blog post by cofounder David Heinemeir Hansson stated, “Nobody should think that maintaining such a list is okay or sanctioned behavior here,” while also acknowledging that he and Fried should’ve caught it.
By Friday, the leadership had offered buyouts, about one-third of the company’s 57 employees took them and left, The Verge reported.
It appears the employees have communicated their thoughts through actions. But to Mechlinski, the episode is also a reminder that words matter. During a Wednesday conversation with Technical.ly, Mechlinski, who works with companies on workplace and culture and is an author on the topic, cited how Fried used a word like “distraction” a week after the trial of Derek Chauvin, which put a spotlight on police abuse and systemic racism.
“It’s probably the most privileged statement I’ve seen or heard in a long time and it’s super disappointing,” he said of the blog post. “This is a company that wrote five books about culture.”
Indeed, Fried and Hansson have carved out a role for Basecamp as an influential company on building companies as well as products. They weren’t the first to ban politics at work in recent years, as Coinbase did the same last year. But so soon after the trial of George Floyd’s murderer, and after a year of events like an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and a pandemic, it seemed to plant a clear flag that the company would not be acknowledging such societal events at their virtual water cooler. Yet the arrival of these events in the midst of workdays where we are all at home has made it clear that these events do have an impact on work lives.
The intertwining of business and politics isn’t new. As Mechlinski points out, many companies are already involved in political acts through lobbying. Yet there’s an evolution taking place. In the last couple of years, there has been a push by CEOs in the last last year advancing stakeholder capitalism, in which the responsibility of a company isn’t only to provide profits, but also to its employees, society and the environment.
“You can’t all of a sudden say we want to decouple these things when they’ve been coupled the whole time,” said Mechlinski.
This year could prove a turning point. After the Jan. 6 insurrection, companies couldn’t just stand by and make statements about freedom of speech. They condemned the events and took action to pause spending.
Jeff Cherry, who works alongside emerging, impact-driven companies in the lead role with Baltimore accelerator Conscious Venture Lab, said the moves represent a reaction to the growing acknowledgement that they can’t be separated.
To Cherry, the moment where the memo really goes off the rails is the sections on “paternalistic” employee benefits, committees and how the company itself will no longer weigh in on issues unless they are tactical business concerns.
“Not talking about Black Lives Matter on a company channel meant for product upgrades is one thing, but not supporting your Black employees by establishing a values-based response to an issue that impacts us all, at work and everywhere else, is another,” Cherry said. “And thinking that providing benefits for employees that recognizes them as whole humans and not simply hands on the assembly line is ‘paternalistic’ is a view of the world that harkens back to the age of Henry Ford.”
Do the work
So, if you’re an employer who wants to lead with this intertwining of business and society in mind and don’t want to ban speech, what’s an approach you can take?
For one, know that you don’t have to necessarily have to speak internally to respond productively. When it comes to acknowledging how employees are impacted by societal events, consider creating regular sessions for employees to speak out. The act of creating space for dialogue and sharing can give employees room to open up, and break down words where there could be a miscommunication, Mechlinski said.
And when it comes to the response of the company to big events, Cherry said it’s important to do the deep work of determining your values you want to present, and use that as a lens with which to engage with the world.
“We can’t all care about everything, but we all must care about something,” he said. “Or else, where are we as a society?”
Knowledge is power!
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