With great culture comes great responsibility or the Basecamp story

the basecamp story

On 26th April 2021 Basecamp’s, a productivity software company, CEO Jason Fried wrote a blog post in which he announced “some company changes” he and the co-founder David Heinemeier Hansson have agreed upon. These changes have attracted considerable media and public attention and led to resignations of almost half of their employee base. 

Among many, some of the key changes include:

  1. No more societal and political discussions on any of the Basecamp accounts.
  2. No more paternalistic benefits, such as fitness and wellbeing allowance, education allowances etc. Instead, these will be paid out as cash value. 
  3. No more committees, including no more employee resource groups, DEI councils or others. All of these will fall under the People Ops roof. 
  4. No more 360 reviews. Instead, employee’s performance will be determined and ‘judged’ solely by their line manager. 
  5. Not forgetting what we do here. With this Fried and David means – building software and not bothering selves with “major issues of the day”. 

Some have understood the motivation for such announcement at Basecamp, some have praised them for being honest rather than paying lip service and showing performative allyship and solidarity to various marginalised communities, while others called it ‘a white male privilege on full display’, ‘disgraceful attempt to silence their employees’ and ultimately ‘ten steps back’ in the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) space. 

However, this is not the first announcement of such kind. Last October crypto start-up Coinbase Global Inc. clamped down discussing politics and social activism at work. Both Coinbase and Basecamp have offered substantial severance packages to employees who did not want to comply or did not see themselves aligning with the new company philosophy. At Coinbase that led to resignations of about 60 or 5% of Coinbase employees, while at Basecamp it is nearly 40% (and counting) of their 58 employees. Interestingly, even Google, have tightened policies over the last couple of years to encourage employees to spend their time and energy at work on work. 

The controversy that has surrounded Basecamp this week did not happen overnight. It has been work in progress for the past decade. Since 2009 Basecamp customer service representatives began keeping a list of customer names that they found funny. This list titled “Best Names Ever” began to make employees uncomfortable and this has been raised with the founders, however this activity was not put a stop to, which Hansson in a recent post has described this as “a serious, collective, and repeated failure at Basecamp” and “one that we need to learn from together”. He goes on saying that such list “Was not only disrespectful to our customers, and a breach of basic privacy expectations, but it was also counter to creating an inclusive workplace. (..) Jason and I should have caught this list. We are ultimately responsible for setting the tone of what’s acceptable behaviour at Basecamp, and in this instance we didn’t. I’m sorry.”

So, what is so unnerving about all of this? 

As Mike K. Tatum from SurveyMonkey commented on professional networking platform LinkedIn, “The issue at Basecamp ultimately is not about discussing politics (liberal vs conservative). That was merely a smokescreen for the most problematic part of this policy, which included a ban on discussions they deem to be “societal issues”; so, topics like killing of unarmed black people, ongoing violence against the Asian American community, fighting the spread of Covid-19, and a list of other things affecting everyone’s experience in the world today.”

By sharing this announcement Basecamp has spoken volumes that the grief and trauma their employees might be going through – not their problem! The emotional state and changing requirements of their customers – not their problem! As they are a software and not a social impact company, “social problems” – not their problems! Such messages show that the company not only doesn’t care about the social injustices but have chosen to perpetuate the status quo; and having such “choice” is a definition of privilege.

One Basecamp employee said in an interview with Casey Newton (The Verge) that “(..) they [Jason and David] are not interested in seeing things in their work timeline that make them uncomfortable, or distracts them from what they’re interested in. And this [announcement] is the culmination of that.”

Nevertheless, I want to take a moment to recognise just how strong of a culture Basecamp built.

Founders Fried and Hansson built a reputation for themselves as culture evangelists, calling out other tech companies for exploitative practices. They billed Basecamp as a place where employees could achieve work-life balance, and bragged about instituting expansive benefits because doing so “feels right.”

DEI strategist and consultant Lily Zheng explains: “When you build a culture around values of accountability, employee well-being, and sustainability, you tend to attract employees who care about those things as well. This is “culture fit” in the purest sense of the word: a strong culture sustained by employees who strongly believe in it can achieve wonders.

But that value is conditional. It depends on those cultural values being reflected on the inside as much as they’re trumpeted on the outside. If employees have cause to believe they’re *not*, especially if they find out via public memo, the resulting consequence is a total implosion of the company’s workforce, reputation, and brand. And so, there’s a lesson here: With great culture comes with great responsibility.” 

All in all, Mike K. Tatum said it best “We’re all citizens of the world regardless of where we work and the idea that “societal issues” aren’t going to impact the workplace is absurd and so are attempts to silence discussions about them wherever they occur.”

Sources:

Original statement by Jason Fried announcing the new company philosophy

Latest report on employee resignations

Internal comms from David Hansson on the inappropriate “Funny Names List” Basecamp employees kept on their customers

Casey Newton’s investigation of Basecamphttps://www.theverge.com/2021/4/27/22406673/basecamp-political-speech-policy-controversy

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