Tech

Basecamp CEO issues apology after ‘no political discussions at work’ edict blows up in his face

Jason Fried, CEO of project management tool Basecamp, has issued a public apology following a major bust-up over new policies that discouraged employees from discussing “societal politics” at work.

Writing on the company’s blog, Fried said: “Last week was terrible. We started with policy changes that felt simple, reasonable, and principled, and it blew things up culturally in ways we never anticipated. David [Heinemeier Hansson, CTO] and I completely own the consequences, and we’re sorry. We have a lot to learn and reflect on, and we will.”

The furore began on 26 April, when Fried published a list of changes to working conditions at Basecamp.

Most were innocuous. The company would end the practice of peer performance reviews, ditch “paternalistic” benefits (like a fitness allowance or a farmer’s market share) for a profit-sharing plan, and stop using committees to make strategic decisions.

More controversially, Fried said the company would ban discussions of political and societal issues on the work Basecamp account.

“Today’s social and political waters are especially choppy,” he said. “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.”

Workplace political discussions, he said, are “not healthy”, “a major distraction”, and “redirects our dialog towards dark places.”

“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,” Fried wrote.

In a similar vein, Fried said Basecamp would avoid taking a public stance on these political issues, and remain focused on the business.

“We don’t have to solve deep social problems, chime in publicly whenever the world requests our opinion on the major issues of the day, or get behind one movement or another with time or treasure. These are all important topics, but they’re not our topics at work – they’re not what we collectively do here,” he said.

“Employees are free to take up whatever cause they want, support whatever movements they’d like, and speak out on whatever horrible injustices are being perpetrated on this group or that (and, unfortunately, there are far too many to choose from). But that’s their business, not ours. We’re in the business of making software, and a few tangential things that touch that edge. We’re responsible for ourselves. That’s more than enough for us.”

The policy changes provoked fury both internally and externally. In response, Basecamp offered to buyout employees who wished to leave. Workers with more than three years of tenure were offered six months’ salary, while those who had worked at the company for less than three years were offered three months. According to The Verge, 18 of the existing 57 employees opted to take the severance package.

In his apology, Fried wished the company’s former employees well, and thanked them for their “hard work and dedication.”

Fried also attempted to reassure customers about Basecamp’s ability to meet their needs.

“The day-to-day responsibilities of running a company do not stop. Our Technical Operations and Customer Support teams continue to ensure all our products are running smoothly, support requests are being answered, and new customer signups continue as usual,” he wrote.

The saga mirrors that experienced by cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase last September, when CEO Brian Armstrong said the company would not engage in “social activism.”

Employees unwilling to accept the company’s “new direction” were offered a separation package that included six months’ salary for those that had been with the company for over three years, four months for everyone else, and six months’ health insurance coverage.

Coinbase had faced internal pressure to express support for the Black Lives Matter movement following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, which culminated in a virtual walkout, according to Wired. ®


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