The Problems of a Perfect, Politics-Free Office

Jason Fried, founder and CEO of Basecamp, is the latest person to choose the way of pain by publicly airing his company’s management changes. The specific part that has got them in hot water is their new policy around the discussion of “politics, advocacy or society at large,” which one of those blunt-force trauma sentences that really should have been reconsidered before posting.

1. No more societal and political discussions on our company Basecamp account. Today's social and political waters are especially choppy. Sensitivities are at 11, and every discussion remotely related to politics, advocacy, or society at large quickly spins away from pleasant. You shouldn't have to wonder if staying out of it means you're complicit, or wading into it means you're a target. 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. It's not healthy, it hasn't served us well. And we're done with it on our company Basecamp account where the work happens. People can take the conversations with willing co-workers to Signal, Whatsapp, or even a personal Basecamp account, but it can't happen where the work happens anymore. 

David Heinemeier Hansson, co-founder and a guy I will now call DHH, had to follow this post up with his own that got into the details, and outlined a little more of a nuanced perspective on the issue. His main thrust is that political conversations at work are “stressful, unnerving and counterproductive,” “setting [the company] up for strife, with little change of changing anyone’s mind.” His suggestion is that political conversations unconnected to work alienate people - which, like most of his post, isn’t necessarily wrong but feels reductive of how people actually talk.

The specific thing that he appears to be hammering home is that these rules are entirely centered around company channels, as in internally at Basecamp. In that case, they are more reasonable - his heart seems to be in the right place when he says that “Basecamp should be a place where employees can come to work with colleagues of all backgrounds and political convictions without having to deal with heavy political or societal debates unconnected to that work.” It’s also good to say stuff like “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.”

The problem is that this decision inherently suggests that work is apolitical and unrelated to societal politics. And without being too cynical, decisions like these oftentimes exist to protect the voices of those who seek to marginalize others, and seek to instead remove any kind of internal moral compass to guide these discussions. By banning the discussion of society and politics, you are effectively saying that there can be no discussion of the world at large, and by proxy that any internal discussions cannot be informed by a discussion of society or politics.

Furthermore, it’s also vague enough to be used as a cudgel. What are “societal" politics exactly? Labor? Unionization? Healthcare? The vagueness means that it will be easy enough to use the policy to justify just about any censorship decision. And while the company no doubt wants to express that they are going to be “fair and unbiased” about it, there is no way with such a vague policy that you can actually prove that, and the first time the policy is actually put into action will be bad.

To quote DHH:

This includes everything from sharing political stories in campfire, using message threads to elucidate others on political beliefs that go beyond the topic directly, or performing political advocacy in general.

This would have been a great time to get specific, but the problem about banning everything is that you can’t get specific. So the entire world has to fill in the gaps, and fill them they will, especially considering that DHH and Jason Fried are two white guys who are making a blanket “don’t talk politics” rule. What was it about, I wonder? If I had to guess, and I am purely guessing, because there are no specifics, it’s probably a discussion about race or gender. If I had to guess, we’re in “I don’t want cancel culture in my business” territory, or some sort of situation where someone was shouted down for having shitty opinions. My evidence? Other than mourning the loss of Ron Paul from the house, Jason posted the Bari Weiss resignation letter and specifically quoted her as a “centrist,” using her own words of course:

Fried has made political statements on Basecamp channels before, including this incredibly political statement about “current events” without specifying what happened in that time period - the murder of George Floyd by a policeman. If you’re a person of color working for or thinking about working for Basecamp, how do you parse the news that Basecamp will no longer have or tolerate political opinions - say, that people who look like you keep getting murdered by police?

DHH seems to have politics that are counter to this argument - he was damning of the treatment of Taylor Lorenz by Tucker Carlson (and has bit back at VCs who support it), has been vocally anti-ICE, and generally seems pro-worker and pro workers’ rights.

He also has provided us with six opinions that he has for some reason, trying to prove he’s a human being with many opinions, which I think is meant to prove that he has varied opinions and that human beings have diverse views on stuff.

All of this is why it’s so insane to try and pretend a company is totally removed from society and politics. To remove the discussion of politics and society from internal channels and relegate it to external channels is effectively having one’s cake and eating it - it stops the company from having to establish and stand by any form of internal morality and political leaning while letting its founders be as political as they like in a way that their employees will see but have no real industry to respond to. Sure, you could build your own social following, but there is no privacy or actual avenue to have these discussions with your peers beyond breaking out onto Signal.

While corporations are not actually people, companies do on some level have a moral code - unspoken or otherwise - that will exclude or include people. Trump’s presidency and the pandemic have both become a kind of morality test for people - do you care about others, and to what extent? Do you support equal rights, or do you support equal rights as long as it doesn’t affect you? These are not questions that you can avoid as a person, and avoiding them in the workplace is, ultimately, impossible. Barring conversations around politics and society suggests that people’s instinct to have these discussion is something to suppress. The reason people are talking about and arguing about politics is that people want to talk about these things, or at the very least, want to work somewhere where they feel they’re accepted.

By barring that conversation, you as a CEO are basically saying that you don’t give a shit what a person believes in, just that they can work, which is theoretically sound but in practice troubling. These people will still have these positions - they will likely have them on public forums - and instead of saying “hey, we can discuss this in our company,” the answer is now…what? Things that happen outside of work don’t affect work? I understand that growing a company and managing a company is hard, and thus you have to make decisions that make running it and managing it easier, but not having these discussions does not remove the effect on the workplace.

It also disempowers the worker. As I’ve said, DHH and Jason Fried have a platform where their opinions (which are fine under the policy) can and will be heard. His workers do not, and cannot use the one place they have where they have people they work with to read them. Instead of setting a policy that clearly states what is and isn’t cool with the company - supporting LGBTQ, race equity and equality (which includes an acknowledgment of the political and societal means that work against BIPOC, and as a result the things that need to happen to make things equal), and so on, and actually believing in something, Basecamp has chosen simply to pretend these things do not exist, and people do not have these opinions.

The problem is that the policy - based on the fact that you can still have these opinions on social media - is inherently broken. It is a system that, if anything, seeks to suppress any political opinions that the founders do not have, because the founders are privileged and capable of delivering whatever message they have to their massive social media followings, with the ability to actually respond and discuss said views totally suppressed internally.

There is an assumption here that you can build a company where large groups of people have totally different moral systems. The hot-button political issues people really get offended about - policing, immigration, race, COVID - are things that are directly informed by their core morality. This situation likely wasn’t about someone discussing the deficit - it was probably about policing, or immigration, or race, or COVID. You can operate and work with someone who holds diametric views to you, but it will, on some level, inform their decision-making and actions of that person. Suppressing these conversations internally suggests that whatever conversations were happening showed that there was an inherent moral rift between the people in question - and at a scale that meant that a policy of silence was better than actually dealing with the issue.

This isn’t to say that any of this is easy, and there are absolutely political conversations that happen that are circular and never-ending. It is difficult to create a policy that can deal with the finesses and nuances of political and societal conversation, but it’s equally silly to outright ban it.

It’s also something that becomes necessary when you’ve not really given much thought to the type of company culture you’re creating. If you are comfortable hiring someone who has truly ghastly political opinions, it’s hard to hide that (especially if the conversation only happens on social media), and it will likely scare off people that aren’t like them. Furthermore, despite the conservative narrative to the contrary, the people that tend to be aggressive and shitty about political opinions tend to come from the right, and tend to fight for causes and ideologies that suppress and dilute the beliefs and lives of the others.

This isn’t about purity tests, as there are no perfect politics, and there are times when it’s absolutely fine to tell people “you are going all in on each other, let’s end this conversation” (especially on a company channel reserved for politics discussion!) or make a policy in those discussions that you don’t get nasty). It’s about the fact that by suppressing all opinions internally, you are acting as if moral systems do not exist, that people’s beliefs do not exist, and likely failing to protect those who actually need protecting. Again, no actual idea about the conversations happening, and no way to gauge them based on the extremely vague communiques from Basecamp.

I don’t have the solution, but banning all political and societal talk in the workplace is not the answer. It’s something that will - if not by Jason and DHH directly, but by the managers under them - inevitably be abused. It will also potentially create a culture that polices opinions based on their proximity to certain subjects, and is worded so vaguely that it could be interpreted to cover just about any subject that needs suppressing.