Basecamp Didn't Just Ban Politics at Work, It Made an Executive Power Grab

In addition to banning political talk, the software company will cancel certain benefits and end employee working groups while putting decisions solely in the hands of executives.
April 27, 2021, 4:39pm
Basecamp Didn't Just Ban Politics at Work, It's an Executive Power Grab
Image: Getty Images
On the Clock is Motherboard's reporting on the organized labor movement, gig work, automation, and the future of work.

On Monday, remote working software company Basecamp announced in a blog post that it will no longer allow employees to discuss social or political issues on work accounts. 

The move follows the lead of cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase, which announced similar policies last year, and includes other changes such as banning workplace diversity and decision-making committees and ending “paternalistic” benefits such as wellness and continuing education initiatives.

Advertisement

In the blog post, chief executive Jason Fried waxed poetic about the impossibility of pleasing everyone due to “too many unique perspectives, experiences, and individuals" and picked a flowery quote from Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception to drive the point home:

We live together, we act on, and react to, one another; but always and in all circumstances we are by ourselves. The martyrs go hand in hand into the arena; they are crucified alone. Embraced, the lovers desperately try to fuse their insulated ecstasies into a single self-transcendence; in vain. By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude.

“Heavy, yes, but insightful, absolutely,” Fried writes, before concluding that companies "must settle the collective difference, pick a point, and navigate towards somewhere." Then, he gets into the substance of his missive: limiting discussions at work, ending certain benefits, shutting down all committees, ending peer feedback in performance reviews, along with less precise commitments to no longer "lingering or dwelling on past decisions," and not “forgetting what we do here.”

On banning discussions around politics or social issues, Fried wrote that employees can broach these topics with co-workers on apps such as Signal or personal Basecamp accounts, but not on work accounts. "Sensitivities are at 11, and every discussion remotely related to politics, advocacy, or society at large quickly spins away from pleasant,” he wrote. “You shouldn't have to wonder if staying out of it means you're complicit, or wading into it means you're a target." To Fried, these discussions have become "a major distraction" that drain energy away from work and "redirects our dialog towards dark places."

Do you work for Basecamp? Are you a Basecamp client? We’d love to hear from you. You can contact Edward Ongweso JR securely on Signal at +1 202 642 8240 or email edward.ongweso@vice.com.

Fried wrote that Basecamp will also be ending what it described as “paternalistic benefits” including “a fitness benefit, a wellness allowance, a farmer's market share, and continuing education allowances.” While instituting these benefits “felt good at the time,” executives have “had a change of heart,” Fried wrote, and concluded that the company should not influence anyone’s activities outside of work even if that influence is positive. The company will pay employees the value of those benefits for this year and cancel them going forward, Fried wrote, while pointing to a recently-introduced 10 percent profit sharing plan.

Basecamp will end all workplace committees, which are often touted inside corporations as being a lever of employee influence on the often opaque whims of management. This means that decision making around issues such as diversity, equity, and inclusion will now be handled exclusively by Basecamp executive Andrea LaRowe. The same goes for “moral quandaries,” which will now be handled exclusively by Fried and co-founder David Hansson. Even a small group of managers called “Small Council” will be disbanded.

"For nearly all of our 21 year existence, we were proudly committee-free," Fried wrote. "No big working groups making big decisions, or putting forward formalized, groupthink recommendations. No bureaucracy. But recently, a few sprung up. No longer."

The end of 360 performance reviews is the last concrete change, with Fried arguing that while the process may be "often positive and reassuring," it's "not very useful" for the system he envisions which prioritizes a free flow of feedback between managers and employees. Feedback among peers is "performative paperwork on top of that natural interaction.” This, like the ban on workplace committees, is another move that will increase the power that executives have over employees. 

The blog post also makes vague proclamations about no more "wallowing in indecisiveness" or “forgetting what we do here.” What this means, Fried writes, is that “it's time to get back to making calls, explaining why once, and moving on.”

Fried frames these changes as "a return to personal responsibility and good faith trust in one another to do our own individual jobs well,” but what it sounds like is a petty fiefdom of executives with near total control in the workplace. Despite the literary quotes and noble language, much like Coinbase's shift, the goal is a more mechanical workplace where the human beings within it only perceive each other in relation to the company that employs them.