Coinbase and Tech's New Anti-Culture Philosophy

Coinbase today is making headlines for banning negotiations on salary, justifying moving away from a model that, and I quote, “disproportionately leaves women and underrepresented minorities behind.” They continue to say that “in fact [they] want compensation differentiation, but it should be solely driven by demonstrated performance and outsized impact on our company and for our customers.” This is also from the company that banned political and societal discussions at work, thus creating an environment where your compensation (both present and future) is tied theoretically to your performance, but in practice to the whims of those that manage you.

It’s another way in which modern management culture is seeking to remove any chance you can possibly have at disagreeing with the management - while they can say that they’re “increasing compensation targets to the 75th percentile of its peers,” none of this actually guarantees a more equitable or unbiased hiring dynamic. While contract negotiations do affect women and minorities from making as much as white men, the solution (much like the decision made around discussing politics and society) isn’t to entirely remove the ability to negotiate pay, but create a more equitable and thoughtful way in which pay is considered and work that into negotiation.

As is often the case with tech companies, instead of having a thoughtful, careful analysis of what’s going on and creating a framework around that, they have simply cut out the process and thrown it in the trash. Negotiation around compensation is something that can, will, and in many cases should happen - if someone doesn’t feel as if they’re getting what they want, they should be able to express that, and a company should be open to that discussion. The blunt-force “no negotiations” policy doesn’t actually solve any problems because it doesn’t offer any solutions - it doesn’t address pay equity, it doesn’t address bias, it doesn’t address…anything? It mostly just says “trust us, we’ll pay people better, and we intend to pay people we think are doing good work more, because they’re good. Somehow this will not be biased.”

This is all particularly troubling because of Coinbase’s history with bias. Coinbase literally paid female and black employees less, and now they are removing the ability for people to negotiate and telling us to simply trust them that they’ll not do that again, despite never truly admitting to doing it or apologizing for anything. Now Coinbase will set whatever Coinbase wants to, and there will be no negotiation, but don’t worry, those who are lucky enough to work there will theoretically make more - despite not, it appears, disclosing their compensation.

This is the beginning of Silicon Valley’s move toward a monocultural management structure. Founders and boards have always sought to hold as much control over the company as possible, usually focusing on how much stock they have and who they appoint, with a vague understanding of establishing a “culture.” I now feel like companies are reacting to the world becoming more aware of the clear biases and disparities in the ways in which the color of your skin and your gender affect your place in the working world, and sadly, I believe we’re going to see some companies entering this culture war with the idea that they can simply erase exterior culture from their company.

By removing the discussion of politics and the ability to negotiate pay, companies are slowly chipping away at the ability for the worker to express any dissent. In their minds, they’re simply removing something that is a “distraction” from doing “great things,” but in mine it’s a logical movement to strip workers of their identities. Company Culture generally reflects what the company believes in, but currently reflects the diverse views and actions of the people that work for it. To me, these moves are a bad sign that Silicon Valley and startup culture is going to move toward dealing with sticky issues in a far more blunt force way - by vastly curbing any opportunity for disagreement with management by draining the personality and diversity from the business.

Basecamp’s employee exodus may have operated as a cautionary tale, but I feel as if it will only become one for established companies. What it’s likely done is give a template for white, male founders to follow to attract and hire people who agree with them, by creating a policy that is both inherently exclusionary and also annoyingly hard to argue with if you need a job. Coinbase is even more worrying - the company has thrived despite their serious diversity issues and banning political discussion, which means that people will not see this as a cautionary tale at all.

This doesn’t mean that these are good companies, nor does it mean that political or societal discussion is in fact distracting. What it does mean is that management now has a template to suppress discussion and dissent in favor of removing “distractions,” which can be framed as anything annoying or boring to them - or, more specifically, “distractions” that could cause problems in the future, like discussions of working conditions on company channels.

It’s the creation of Private Relations - internal company messaging that is controlled from the beginning to benefit those in power and retain said power at all costs. Companies can and will hire people that reflect their image, and by controlling internal discussions and messaging, they can suppress anything that might step outside of the norm or propagate dissent. You can still hire diverse candidates without being a diverse company - you can simply make sure to select those that will be quietest and easiest to deal with - token hires, just like Coinbase has already done - and suppress their voices with policies. You can fake an “open management” culture by making sure that everybody is able to have their voice heard - as long as you do so through a very specific set of channels, controlled by advocates hired and organized by those in power.

As I regularly say, this isn’t new, it’s just something that startups are now going to adopt. Basecamp and Coinbase proved that you can survive if you start to suppress conversations within the company, and I think this naturally opens the doors to more worker suppression and control. And I think that it’s going to be the beginning of a truly awful culture war - the creation of companies that are proud to be anti-diversity and anti-inclusivity, hidden in a shroud of “not wanting discussions that distract us from building cool shit.” It will include people talking about being “anti-woke” and “anti-snowflake,” claiming that such forces are created because people feel like they “have to” discuss politics and society.

This will be Silicon Valley’s culture war - disrupting fairness in hiring by creating policies that won’t necessarily break laws, but will seek to quiet voices that step outside of the company rule. These rules will claim to be inclusive - removing the friction between work and worker - but will seek to keep the powerful in power, and simply stop the uncomfortable conversations and situations from ever occurring.