This week, Basecamp CEO, Jason Fried, made an announcement about new policies published in a blog post titled ‘Changes at Basecamp.’ The most notable and divisive of them all include — “No more societal and political discussions on our company Basecamp account”, “No more committees” and “No more lingering or dwelling on past decisions.”
Although some of the new policies have incurred a positive response for the way tech companies should, could and will conduct business, readers were shocked to learn about its particular stance on free expression of speech, diversity and self-reflection because of the company’s historically transparent culture.
Basecamp co-founders, Jason Fried and David Heineimeier Hansson, wrote memos referring to the policy changes, which have sparked widespread discussion in and beyond Silicon Valley. Fried and Hansson are both viewed and respected as opinionated thought leaders on company culture, remote work and collaboration. In its 22 years of operation, Basecamp has taken a large number of political stances, all of which employees were encouraged to discuss.
Although the operational choices of many tech CEOs are often driven by ingenuine venture capital supposition, I thought I’d contribute to this discourse as a Black woman (she/her) running a tech company that’s rooted in the fact that diverse workforce representation is a business imperative and share why I believe that stifling employee speech is a dangerous game to play. If you’re thinking about how to advance DE&I at your company, then here are a few takeaways based on where—I believe—Basecamp failed.
1. Eliminating free speech is as oppressive and silencing as ‘cancel culture.’
It’s possible to suffocate the goals and vision of a company that boasts the mission of ‘making the world a better place’ under the guise of operational efficiency. There’s an early Greek myth of Icarus that so clearly parallels this. Icarus’ father constructed wings so that his son could learn how to fly like a bird. Confounded by this gift, Icarus ignores his father’s warning and flies too close to the sun, causing his homemade wax wings to melt, leaving the dominance of gravity to plunge him back to earth.
In this present-day equivalent, the sun and gravity is the juxtaposition of rightness, democratic fairness and social justice warriors roaming Twitter looking to dismantle systemic institutions by demolishing reputations and empowering ‘cancel culture.’
Over the past week, interviews with Basecamp employees depict a general desire to improve Basecamp’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion by having sensitive discussions about where the company has failed in the past. After some emotionally-charged discussions, Fried and his cofounder decided to completely cancel those conversations.
“In the end, we feel like this is the long-term healthy way forward for Basecamp as a whole – the company and our products,” Fried wrote in the blog post.
Although I believe there is a conscientiousness to its intention, cancel culture is very much an ideology that subscribes to the elimination of redemption, resolution and discourse, which is exactly what Basecamp leaders are promoting by dismantling DE&I committees, discouraging self-reflection and banning political dialogue.
Basecamp’s announcement to offer severance packages to employees who disagreed with the new policies—especially leadership banning political discourse and internal committees—is no different than Twitter communities politically and socially ostractising people for recent or past transgressions. Eliminating the sources of discourse and the environments through which that discourse was once embraced or nurtured is destructive to culture. It assumes that priority is given to comfort, or more specifically, white comfort, which has historically alienated generations of BIPOC folks from thriving, mobilizing or simply being in corporate spaces.
2. Inconsistency between what you say and what you do is palpable. Once you declare change, commit to it.
Last year, the software company launched an email service called Hey that was widely recognized for producing “opinionated software.” Creating this software required the inputs and intellectual property of opinionated people, whose historically opinionated leaders have now invalidated, discredited and bashed opinion.
The only exception to this rule is whether or not those expressed opinions are “business-related.” To assume or promote, however, that DE&I is not business-related is to conduct business ignorantly. Even Fried, back in 2017, wrote an essay in Inc.’ about the cruciality of intention for all DE&I efforts. “If you want your workforce to reflect the rest of the world (and your customers), change your behavior,” Fried wrote.
“A few years ago, some of our employees brought up their concerns about our general lack of diversity. It wasn’t prompted by reading a study or trying to hit some arbitrary diversity number. It was more of a gut feeling. It just didn’t feel right. We had to change.”
The disparity in what you say and what you do is palpable. It’s impossible to ignore. Basecamp’s “change” or “prioritization” of DE&I was recognized, and subsequently mobilized, by opinions. If leaders only became conscious of this issue because of the free expression of speech and opinion, then eliminating that will only foster an environment for homogenous behavior and that, to Fried’s point in the Inc. essay, is ultimately detrimental to business.
3. A thriving company is a conscious one; self-reflection is an imperative preliminary step to growth.
According to the blog post, all things DE&I at Basecamp have been rolled up and packaged to fall under the jurisdiction of the Head of People Ops. The most troubling thing about this, is the reality of overwhelm and deprioritization. There’s a reason why there are entire roles created to address the problem of diversity of thought, experience and identity. In any other business case, it’s easy for issues to slip through the cracks when leaders are not being explicit about their goals and assigning parameters for accountability and incentivization. What would make DE&I any different?
Pema Chödrön, an American-born Tibetan Buddhist, once said “It doesn’t do any good to get rid of our so-called negative aspects because in that process we also get rid of our basic wonderfulness.” Trying to avoid or eliminate “negative aspects” of our culture can oftentimes stifle the very innovation and humility required to transform into something truly world-changing. If prosperity, in many forms, manifests when we fully and completely participate in all aspects of life, then it’s through this growth state that we can truly express our nature—or in a corporate setting—our culture.
Ultimately, we may be inspired to villainize Basecamp and its leaders for imposing and enforcing these kinds of policies, but we can’t ignore the reality of this being reflective of what Corporate America is and always has been in this country. It has always upheld white supremacist ideology under the guise of operational efficacy. It’s what inspired me and my cofounders to create PeduL, a diversity hack for corporations to source and engage with underrepresented talent through scholarship programs. To Fried’s point, diversity, equity and inclusion can’t be done by accident. It must be an intentional behavioral acknowledgement, and subsequently, a laborious and uncomfortable change. We can’t ignore that restricting internal conversations in the workplace can and will adversely affect and degrade all diversity, equity and inclusion advancements. If we want our workplaces to reflect the world we live in, investment and intention cannot be an afterthought. The companies who are winning are those who understand that they must find new and innovative ways to dismiss complacency, abolish laziness and denounce aversion of the problem that ‘no one wants to talk about.’