The case for talking politics at your tech company
This week, Basecamp’s CEO announced a new policy in his company-news blog post — “No more societal and political discussions on our company Basecamp account.”
This was just one of a handful of changes, some of which (like eliminating 360 reviews) I think are unequivocally positive, but it stuck out to readers as both an unusual stance for such an open, transparent company and an indication that there was something majorly worrisome going on in the company group chat.
I’m generally not eager to debate the nuances of tech CEO’s decisions on diversity and free expression because I don’t think most of those executives are acting in good faith. Many tech companies, while falsely presented as missions to improve the world, are largely shells for venture-capital speculation, with the consequences for customers, workers and society at large barely registering among their concerns.
Basecamp is different, though. I’ve advocated for the company’s products and adored its leadership team, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, for the better part of two decades. I’ve read all their books (and share them with my team whenever we start a new project) and have zero doubt that they are sincere and serious in their goals of creating a healthier workplace.
I also know that they’re getting a lot of negative feedback on their new policy, and part of their natural reaction to that criticism is to dismiss the messengers: for example, Hansson laments with sarcastic punctuation, “Unsurprisingly, parts of Twitter is very. disappointed. in. us.”
I get it. Twitter disagreements are weird and should not always be taken at face value. However, I hope that my contribution to this discussion, from a fellow technology executive running a very similar company (I manage a fully remote and distributed team of 15 designers and engineers in the U.S. and Canada, building web applications and software-as-a-service products in an environment largely modeled on the calm, focused approach to work that Fried and Hansson have espoused for decades) will show that it’s not just outsiders looking in who think limiting employee speech is a bad call. I hope to show that the desire to avoid uncomfortable topics at work inevitably backfires in practice, alienating your team and making it harder to recruit talented people, and eventually making it harder to work productively as a group and ship great software.
I use Basecamp every day and will continue to do so. In my opinion, it’s far and away the best project management software on the market. I have no expectation of influencing the Basecamp execs themselves to make changes — but I want to present a clear counterexample for the other tech founders and CEOs out there, showing that you can build a multi-million-dollar tech company with a diverse team that treats everyone with dignity, equality and respect.
There’s no need to choose between business success and basic humanity. You can have both, and if you prefer only to have one, there’s a good chance the extraordinarily talented people that quit your company will be excited to join your disruptively humane competitors.
The root of the controversy
A day after the initial announcement, The Verge spoke to employees and got the inside scoop on the events that led to the decision. Hansson later confirmed the outline of the story and shared some additional internal details and context. You should read it in full, but I’ll sum it up. Starting back in 2009, someone at Basecamp made a list of customer names that they thought sounded funny. Other people later contributed to the list. This list, after apparently being deleted and then emerging again, eventually caused concern among employees in 2021, and employees suggested in strong terms that the executive team had mishandled the situation. Two group chats “had to be closed” by the CEO because employees were “hurling angry words at each other,” Hansson wrote. Thus, employees are no longer allowed to talk about society in the group chat.
I don’t want to belabor the analysis of this specific situation, but if you’ve been working in software development for 20 years, it is probably time to figure out how to train, manage and coach coders who have juvenile and inappropriate senses of humor, as well as how to intervene productively in situations where people are angry with each other. This strikes me as a situation that any middle school principal could have handled with aplomb, and yet it seems to have caused two of the most revered entrepreneurs on the planet to collapse into a heap of digital despair.
That said, hindsight is 20/20, and it seems that everyone involved agrees that the problem of the list could have been handled better. For the rest of this post — most of which I wrote before the specifics of the list came to light — I’ll focus on the decision to limit employee speech in response to controversy, and show why it is likely to backfire and harm the working relationships at Basecamp even more than the incident that inspired the rule.
Vague, subjective guidelines create fear, distrust and disengagement
What, in practice, does “societal politics” mean? I suspect that any reader of this article could quickly concoct a way to tie just about any event or idea to the hot-button issues of the day. If we all agree the Black Lives Matter protests are off limits, how about buying a condo in a recently gentrified part of a major city? If we agree that climate change is taboo, can I talk about how much I love my new electric car, or the fact that my upcoming vacation plans include flying on an airplane? Can I bring up the Iran-Contra scandal, or is it still too soon?
Under Basecamp’s formulation, “don’t talk politics at work” doesn’t really mean anything, because the boundaries of politics are entirely subjective. In this case, that decision seems to fall to the combined judgement of the CEO and CTO, which means this rule boils down to “don’t talk about things that Jason and David find uncomfortable.” As the controlling owners, they have the right to make that rule, but I don’t think it will produce the result they’re aiming for.
This is a paradox that sneaks up on a lot of tech companies: policies that appear to be “flexible” actually create subjective judgement calls that systematically disadvantage people that enter the company with less social capital. A typical example is “unlimited vacation,” which sounds flexible but in practice means “ask your manager for vacation and receive a subjective decision that you can’t really contest, and we won’t pay out your unused vacation when you stop working here.” Another is deciding on promotions based on subjective “performance reviews,” which results in men who take smoke breaks with their bosses being more likely to move up the corporate ladder while employees who need flexibility for childcare fret over suggestions that “you can’t get promoted over Zoom.”
Tech executives may not notice how these subjective judgements hurt everyone, but employees do, particularly when presented with a counterexample. Heather McGhee’s recent book, The Sum of Us, explores a similar pattern throughout history, in which exclusionary policies (like closing the town pool rather than integrating it) hurt disadvantaged groups the most, but hurt everyone in absolute terms.
That’s one of the reasons I introduced transparent, nationwide equal pay at my company, as well as generous (but measurable) paid time off and a predictable, publicly verifiable metric that triggers your first promotion. We agree on a fair deal, and the numbers are there for everyone to review, so nobody ever has to worry that they’re the sucker at the poker table.
Transparency increases team camaraderie. Vague, subjective rules produce fear and disengagement among people who feel even the slightest bit vulnerable at work — which is just about everyone. In other words, the rational thing to do in an environment with unclear rules and uncertain but potentially catastrophic consequences is to become extremely cautious, to the point of saying and doing nothing at all. I don’t think that’s the outcome the Basecamp execs want, but it’s what they’re incentivizing.
When corporations are people, but people aren’t people
In his follow-up to the announcement of Basecamp’s new policy, Hansson mentions his belief that “Parler’s eviction from the internet was wrong.” While some portion of the content on Parler almost certainly broke the law, I agree that it was an arbitrary decision by major tech companies like Amazon and Apple to suddenly shut down the platform, and that decision is problematic in the greater context of preserving free expression. There’s also little dispute that Amazon and Apple had the right to make that decision, even if it was perceived as unfair by some. The owners of those tech infrastructure companies are The Deciders. (Too soon?)
Guess what’s also an example of a company making an arbitrary decision to limit free expression? A vague, subjective policy restricting what your employees can talk about on company time.
My guess is that Hansson doesn’t feel the need to square his belief that Amazon shouldn’t silence Parler with his desire to keep his employees from piping up about politics at work, but I struggle to see how one person can defend those two ideas at the same time. If corporations are people, I propose that we treat people like people too.
Perhaps the strangest wrinkle in this episode is that Hansson and Fried, both vehement proponents of tech privacy and longtime evangelists for happy, healthy workplaces, suggest that employees take their political discussions to Signal or WhatsApp, two famous encrypted messaging platforms. In what world does my discussion of eliminating the filibuster with my fellow Ruby on Rails software engineer need to be conducted on a cross-platform centralized encrypted messaging service? I think everyone knows — including the algorithm, since I bought that yard sign on Etsy — that I am concerned about the Senate being skewed toward rural states in a way that is no doubt causing the Founding Fathers at this very moment to spin in their graves. If my boss feels that discussion requires encryption with an Extended Triple Diffie–Hellman handshake, I think we have bigger problems than the level of civility on the group chat.
Overreacting to social risk
I suspect the suggestion that political speech should be encrypted was a nervous tell that revealed the Basecamp execs’ biggest anxiety — that they, or a beloved employee, would end up on the wrong end of a cancellation or public shaming. The funny thing is, even though we (as tech entrepreneurs) pride ourselves on making smart judgements about risk, we consistently overestimate the risk of a crisis resulting from earnest public speech on delicate topics.
Yes, there are famous people who have committed actual crimes and been punished for them with public shame and/or criminal prosecution. But unpopular speech is not a crime, and the news saying otherwise has been greatly exaggerated.
The Internet is overflowing with writers, academics and Twitter personalities who’ve been cancelled, only to revive their careers days later at new publications or with six-figure Substack and Patreon accounts. I’ve been boycotting Chick-fil-A for nearly a decade, but the line is still around the block! As for Dr. Seuss, let’s not even go there.
Pandering to a partisan audience isn’t a decision I’d make for my tech business, and I don’t suggest Basecamp should do that either. I’m keeping my subscription because I love their software and (most) of their philosophy about work. However, I think Fried and Hansson are massively overestimating the risk of allowing free expression at work. In fact, they’re probably already experiencing the worst possible result, and while the bad publicity around this policy may hurt their ability to recruit new employees, I doubt it’ll hurt their bottom line.
When Fried says, “Today’s social and political waters are especially choppy,” he’s expressing a common truism, but I’d counter: compared to when? There were dozens of high-profile assassinations in the ’60s. There was impeachment and partisan extremism in the ’90s, and there was a crook in the White House and crises abroad in the ’70s. None of this takes away from the challenges of our nascent decade, but I hope it shows that there’s a logical fallacy at work when Fried and Hansson suggest that their intervention is necessary because of a newfound chop in the social waters.
In my experience, the best tonic for insecurity about whether other people will talk negatively about your company, particularly in the context of societal politics, is to actually do something tangible to improve the lives of the people around you. If you walk the walk — for example, by establishing systematic rules for equal treatment of your employees and expanding your hiring pipelines beyond “traditional” sources — it doesn’t matter very much what people say about you on Twitter. Actions speak louder than words. Results speak for themselves. But if you don’t have any actions or results to show, you’re stuck overanalyzing every word everybody taps into their social media apps with your hashtag attached.
This is where most tech companies are today: they are showing so little tangible progress on diversifying their teams that all anyone can do is bloviate about platitudes, memes, pledges, initiatives, introspective blog posts and social-media playground quarrels. They fancy themselves disruptive innovators but are paralyzed by a problem that is easily solved if you approach it with the even the slightest hint of humility and openness to experiences different from your own.
Talk is cheap. If you’re a tech exec and want to insulate your organization and your ego against claims that you’re out of touch with the modern world, you don’t need to police your employees’ speech. You need to take some real, tangible action to catch up.
One of the benefits of having a boring job (building project management software) that you’re really good at (Basecamp has been a market leader for 15+ years) is that you have a lot of leeway to be yourself. Rather than trying to shelter themselves and their employees from a mostly imagined risk, Fried and Hansson should stand tall and support everyone at their company in being their full, authentic selves, while setting clear standards for when disagreement crosses the line into inappropriate behavior. If their team indeed has a wide diversity of viewpoints, that should be a point of pride, not cause for a cover-up.
Where does work end and ‘society’ begin?
One of the biggest challenges as an employer and manager is getting your team to a place where they feel comfortable opening up with you, sharing their challenges, and being themselves. Sometimes these challenges are strictly work-related, but often they stem from a mix of personal adversity and bigger-picture things happening in the outside world. This week, for example, I coached one member of my team through some scheduling challenges they were experiencing while working from home with their son on a new childcare schedule. Another team member joined Zoom about halfway through, and (with everyone’s permission) we looped them in, and they contributed to the conversation too. It was fantastic — exactly the kind of friendly, caring atmosphere I want to nurture.
But could that conversation have happened in a public setting under Basecamp’s new rules? What if, for example, the discussion strayed to healthcare costs or the child tax credit? Cue the end-to-end encryption.
I think the Basecamp execs missed the fact that, for many Americans, politics and daily life are inextricable — especially when the taboo subjects are defined, in Fried’s words, as “every discussion remotely related to politics, advocacy, or society.” (Does “society” include software-as-a-service product design?)
It’s something of a luxury to be able to just turn it off, and frankly, as someone who has the ability to exercise that luxury, I still think it’s a bizarre and antisocial decision to habitually pretend like the world doesn’t exist so you can sit down and code. Fried says, “We are not a social impact company,” but everything everyone does has some sort of social impact. Society needs knowledgeable citizens who have experience engaging in difficult conversations without catastrophic results to their interpersonal relationships. They could gain that experience at a company with the right structure, trust and leadership.
Everything is Agile
Back in the early 2000s, when societal politics was so agreeable that we didn’t need company gag orders, the Basecamp founders helped popularize a software development methodology called Agile, which my company and many others use with extraordinary results today. The core idea is that you don’t build a two-year product roadmap — you plan out the next week or two, and then continuously iterate and improve based on what actually exists, rather than the theory you posited at the start of your project.
Fried and Hansson apply a similar Agile approach to their business, which is one of the reasons I think there’s a lot of hope that this will become a learning opportunity that will ultimately improve the experience of Basecamp’s employees and set a positive example for tech execs considering similar questions in the future. I’ve been following the Basecamp execs’ careers and guidance for more than 15 years, and I don’t think they’re so stuck in their ways that they can’t pivot toward a more employee-focused position in the future. And even if they don’t choose to pivot — which is allowed, since they own the company — they will still be participating in a valuable, real-world experiment.
Maybe their hypothesis will end up being right, and disallowing broad swaths of speech at work will be the financially optimal way to run a software company. And maybe my hypothesis, that building a company around caring for your employees at a human level rather than trying to optimize them for maximum output and minimum social boat-rocking, will win the day. Every investment of an entrepreneur’s time, money and energy is effectively a gamble on an unproven idea. I’m feeling pretty good about my odds.
If you’d like to make a meaningful contribution to diversity in tech, I recommend a donation to Resilient Coders, an organization that runs rigorous tech bootcamps in Boston and Philadelphia. I am a friend and donor and have hired grads, but I do not personally benefit from donations in any way. If you’re a tech exec, you can also get in touch with them about hiring a member of their next cohort.