Basecamp Bans Political Discourse at Work and One-Third of Its Employees Quit

As CEO’s Embrace Political Activism, Employees Follow Suit, Creating a Toxic Workplace Environment 

5/7/21 – – Last week we learned that project-management software company Basecamp had banned employees from participating in “societal and political discussions” at work. Generous severance packages were offered to those who found the prohibition to be an unacceptable condition of employment. About one-third of the company’s 60 employees quit.

There’s been plenty of criticism and praise for Basecamp’s policy decision, and analysis of its employees’ response. What can crisis counselors learn from all this?

As readers of this blog know well, I consider politics to be the third rail of social and business interaction. I believe companies and CEOs answering today’s intensifying calls to social and political activism are wondering into a minefield of turbulence and, ultimately, termination. Within the employee and consumer bases of most companies, emotions are too raw and positions too polarized to successfully navigate hot-button political issues better left to, well, politicians to sort out. 

The Basecamp case study and a similar situation last year at Coinbase (about five-percent of the cryptocurrency company’s workforce resigned after political discourse at work was banned) shines a light on another downside of corporate political activism. In what becomes a cauldron of confrontation and intimidation, people feel uncomfortable coming to work. Political bullies use interactions in the workplace to push their positions and shame those who disagree or prefer to just do their jobs.

Here’s how Basecamp CEO Jason Fried in his message to employees announcing the policy change characterized this toxic environment:

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.

He suggested alternative venues for political discourse:

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.

Seems reasonable and wise to me. There are plenty of platforms outside of work for expressing and exercising social activism. And companies should consider making generous time-off available to employees driven to causes and concerns near and dear to their hearts. Channeled social activism should be encouraged, but boundaries are necessary to assure that your workplace is a safe space for people holding a diversity of beliefs and positions.

CEOs championing social and political positions will avoid crises by honoring these boundaries as well. Are your public statements making people feel uncomfortable coming to work? In today’s world, chances are good that your political stands do not reflect the beliefs or affiliations of half your workforce.

I think Basecamp and Coinbase are onto something. Maybe company boards of directors should limit CEO political activism and offer generous severance packages to those senior executives who disagree. How many would resign? Five-percent? Thirty-percent? It sure would be interesting to find out.

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