Wokeness At Work: Is The Pendulum Swinging Back? Coinbase, Basecamp & Google

Coinbase Logo

Just before I started my first job after college, my grandmother pulled me aside and told me, “Don’t talk about religion or politics at work.”

That was 35 years ago. Is her advice coming back into fashion?

Once Is An Accident. Twice Is A Coincidence. Three Times Is A Trend

Coinbase: Focus On Core Mission

Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong

Coinbase describes itself as “a trusted and easy-to-use platform for accessing the broader cryptoeconomy.”

Last Fall, Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong banned discussion of politics at work, offering severance packages to employees unable or unwilling to abide by the new rules.

Policy specifics included:

Employees should NOT:

  • Debate causes or political candidates internally that are unrelated to work
  • Expect the company to represent our personal beliefs externally
  • Assume negative intent, or not have each other[’]s back[s]
  • Take on activism outside of our core mission at work

Employees SHOULD:

  • Fight to get on the same page when we have differences
  • Support each other, and create team cohesion
  • Assume positive intent
  • Put the company goals ahead of our teams or individual goals

Employees remained free to advocate around issues of pay, conditions of employment, or violations of law.

60 employees, or five percent of personnel, reportedly left Coinbase because of the new policy.

Basecamp: Refocus, Refresh, Revitalize 

Basecamp makes project management, team communication, and email software.

Basecamp CEO Jason Fried

In banning societal and political discussions on the Basecamp company account, CEO Jason Fried placed the change in the broader context of cultural evolution, respect for individual choice, and collective mission. He said, in part:

“We all want different somethings. Some slightly different, some substantially. Companies, however, must settle the collective difference, pick a point, and navigate towards somewhere, lest they get stuck circling nowhere.”

In seeking the golden mean, Fried announced the following ground rules:

  • No more societal and political discussions on our company Basecamp account 
  • No more paternalistic benefits
  • No more committees
  • No more lingering or dwelling on past decisions
  • No more 360 reviews
  • No forgetting what we do here

In a libertarian follow-up message, co-Founder and CTO David Heinemeier Hansson stated that:

Basecamp co-Founder and CTO David Heinemeier Hansson

“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….We encourage you to continue these difficult discussions with willing colleagues on other systems….We also encourage…you to exercise your right to activism and political engagement outside of work. It’s none of Basecamp’s business how or whether you choose to spend your time, money, or voice to support charities, causes, or political action groups.”

Render To Caesar The Things That Are Caesar’s*

Diverse Responses To A Common Task

Not everybody within or without Coinbase and Basecamp liked or supported these policies.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, for example, criticized Coinbase for undermining the company’s cryptocurrency mission of challenging “an unverifiable and exclusionary financial system….I[t is i]mportant to at ‘least’ acknowledge and connect the related societal issues your customers face daily. [Otherwise, t]his leaves people behind.”

Dorsey takes a different tack in helming Twitter. But, his task does not differ from that of other CEOs: hiring, training, and retaining talented people while getting them to collaborate well enough to beat the competition.

We can and should expect companies to approach this task in light of their respective industries, as well as their own missions, values, cultures, and brands.

Et Tu, Google?

Interestingly, even Google, a company with a “woke” reputation, has tightened policies over the last two years to encourage employees to spend their time and energies at work on work.

According to one blog, the new policies have apparently spooked Google “employee activists.”

That is perhaps a revealing turn of phrase. Do “employee activists” have workplace priorities that differ from those of “activist employees”?

Common Sense Isn’t Common**

If we take diversity seriously, we must expect approaches to diverge. And at the end of the day, the marketplace will itself judge success or failure.

Still, I think my grandmother was onto something. She lacked a degree and fancy job title, but she had life experience and common sense. She was wise.

Efforts to create utopian workplaces will fail — as places to work and as businesses — because they run contrary to human nature. If it were otherwise, we would expect at least one of history’s many, many previous utopian social experiments to still be around.

A company that motivates its employees, pleases its customers, and rewards its investors falls far short of utopia. But, in a harsh and competitive world, such a company represents a big achievement.

Sometimes, less is more. Coinbase and Basecamp (and maybe even Google) seem to think so.

So did my grandmother.


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