Brian Armstrong, CEO of cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase, revealed in a late September blog post that the company would prohibit employees from debating political or social issues, deeming this a “distraction” from the company’s mission.
Armstrong doubled down on his position during a virtual all-hands held on October 1, billed as an “AMA” (for “ask me anything”), from which Motherboard obtained audio. The AMA was meant to further explain the company’s new “apolitical” direction for those who might consider accepting a severance package that was offered to any employee who felt “uncomfortable.” Executives also explained when and where dissent would be appropriate, and explained why they required employees to delete specific political Slack messages.
This, at a company that works with cryptocurrencies intended to replace government banking systems in order to create a more free world.
Are you a Coinbase employee who knows more about the company's new direction and how it's being handled? Using a non-work phone or computer, contact Edward Ongweso Jr securely on Signal at (413) 225 2938, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
During the meeting, Armstrong claimed there is a “silent majority” at Coinbase that agreed with his decision but feared reprisal from colleagues. Armstrong and Coinbase leadership, however, failed to soothe fears that this policy would police employees if they voiced opinions that did not align with Armstrong or this “silent majority.”
One former Coinbase employee who left the company after the AMA and to whom Motherboard provided anonymity due to fear of industry reprisal said that these assurances were insufficient and workers feared surveillance and censorship.
These fears are not unfounded. Emile Choi, Coinbase's chief operating officer, explained that at least two employees were asked to delete Slack posts, and that HR head L.J. Brock “proactively reached out to employees to explain why their posts would be taken down. He had a very productive conversation with both of them and they understood the context,” she said.
One employee asked if Coinbase leadership thought that this was “taking away employee power to start a discussion except with 300 character questions” in an AMA format. “It seems like Coinbase is stunting internal discussion.”
Choi said that the entire executive team was aligned on Armstrong’s post and policy, and that the new “culture is focused on what unites us and what we face in the world, which is building toward our mission,” Choi said. “The goal was not intended to be harsh, it wasn’t intended to land in a way where people felt they were being policed.”
She then explained that the place for political discussion or dissent was in dedicated Slack channels for “sensitive topics”: “While you can’t try to sell folks on your belief the Flying Spaghetti Monster should be elected president, you can establish a channel where people interested in electing the Flying Spaghetti Monster can share their thoughts.”
“There’s fear from employees about monitoring in all channels, including private ones,” the former Coinbase employee told Motherboard. “The biggest fear is that employees will be confronted on what they say or do on their work and personal devices—work systems are often on personal devices. This already happened when writers of old Slack posts were confronted by leadership and asked to delete posts.”
Problems have been building at Coinbase for the past year, which culminated in a June 4 walkout that followed another company-wide AMA shortly after the killing of George Floyd by police. During that AMA, Armstrong resisted the idea of making a public statement in support of Black Lives Matter, but backtracked after the walkout and posted a series of messages in support of BLM on Twitter later that day.
Fast forward to late September, and Armstrong’s announcement that political discussions at work are not acceptable and anyone “uncomfortable” may leave. According to the company, it lost 60 employees, or 5 percent of its workforce as a result of this decision.
One of the earliest questions raised in the AMA was “What counts as political?” Armstrong avoided specifying what topics could lead to discipline or firing, but offered work visas and employee resource groups as examples of incidentally political but primarily work-related things that were “a totally appropriate conversation to have” at Coinbase.
One employee shared their concern that a ban on political topics at work would mainly serve to silence people whose lived experiences point to systemic problems. “For some, sharing their own personal experiences and traumas can be advocating or seen as advocating for certain causes,” the employee wrote. “Can we really support each other with those policies being kept outside of this workplace?”
The former employee that Motherboard spoke with said that there is a disconnect between Coinbase’s supposedly “apolitical” direction and the inherent politics of a company working to build a new financial system.
“Crypto is political, so the sense is that doing this stems from leadership (Brian) not agreeing with certain political stances. It’s easier to just prohibit any discussion at all,” said the former Coinbase employee.
“It comes off to employees as being ruled in fear because social issues aren’t a distraction,” they added. “They cause the financial problems that crypto wants to fix. You can’t fix one without the other—they’re hand-in-hand. The root is the social issues.”
On top of banning discussion and forcing employees to delete Slack messages, the AMA revealed other instances of opaqueness on the part of management. When an employee asked if management would share the results of internal surveys and feedback around the new policy, Choi said no and explained, “It's really meant to be feedback for the seniors.”
There has been talk among former and current employees of creating a #deleteCB campaign, the former employee told Motherboard, hoping to help people move their money to “more socially responsible platforms” and competitors that have been trying to get in contact with Coinbase workers: "It's rooted in the understanding that we can't collectively fix the financial problems that crypto tries to solve without addressing the underlying social issues that create the problem in the first place."
The former employee, who said they have been in contact with workers who chose to stay, said that some Coinbase workers feel they must shut up and “be complicit” unless they want to risk losing their jobs.
“From my experience and discussions, the most frightening thing about this is the timing. We’re in a pandemic, there’s a political election,” said the former Coinbase employee. “Many did not leave because even though there was a ‘generous’ severance offer, it’s still so scary to go back out in the market right now. People felt trapped.”
Coinbase acknowledged Motherboard’s request for comment and said “these accusations are quite extreme and absolutely false.” In a follow up call the company declined to go on the record and would not be specific about what allegations it believed are false. It then missed a deadline to respond to our request for comment. We will update if we hear back.