Before I go any further, I’d like to acknowledge my own privilege. I am white, cisgender, straight and male. My goal is to be an ally for oppressed communities and to support systemic change that addresses discrimination. My personal experience of discrimination is limited by my own privilege. I am open to learning from others whose personal experience may be different from my own and hearing other viewpoints.

I’ve been a fan of Basecamp for a long time. Recently, Basecamp made a decision to ban political and societal discussion in the workplace along with disbanding their Diversity & Inclusion committee. These decisions have caused me to assess how I use Basecamps products and how I want to continue using them.

First off, what happened

A quick rundown on what happened at Basecamp (gathered from several new sources, listed below)

  1. Basecamp had a list of customer names that employees found funny. After several years of this practice, employees began noticing that mocking the sound of others’ names (especially names common to other races or ethnicities) is a racist behavior due to them being ethnic or unusual for American names.
  2. Basecamp had an internal discussion regarding the list of names which became heated
  3. Basecamp disbanded their Diversity and Inclusion initiative
  4. Basecamp banned political and societal discussions at work via a blog post causing company backlash
  5. Basecamp hosted a town-hall meeting to discuss these changes. During this meeting some executives shared controversial viewpoints around white supremacy.

The town-hall resulted in 1/3 of the employees quitting. This is indicative of the greater problem we face as we challenge oppression. Often, those that aren’t directly hurt by system oppression (because everyone is indirectly affected) have the privilege to ignore it. A disagreement between Ryan Singer, whom was head of strategy, and an employee illustrates this divide.

Often, those that aren't directly hurt by system oppression (because everyone is indirectly affected) have the privilege to ignore it.

“I strongly disagree we live in a white supremacist culture,” Singer said. “I don’t believe in a lot of the framing around implicit bias. I think a lot of this is actually racist.”

“The fact that you can be a white male, and come to this meeting and call people racist and say ‘white supremacy doesn’t exist’ when it’s blatant at this company is white privilege,” the employee said. “The fact that he wasn’t corrected and was in fact thanked — it makes me sick.”

Singer replied, “I stand by what I said. Saying white people have something in common is racist. I stand by it … I am very sure I don’t treat people in a racist way.”

The employee responded: “You said, ‘white supremacy doesn’t exist.’ That’s a factual lie. It’s not true.”

Later Singer shutdown the conversation when it became uncomfortable for him, “I don’t accept that framing,” Singer responded. “It’s not productive to argue further. I don’t want to argue. This difference in views, it is what makes a political discussion so difficult.”

For more details, the original company blog post can be found here, the full breakdown of what happened here, and the details into the townhall meeting here.

Why is this problematic for Company culture

Each of the above policies appears to come from a place of working more efficiently and focused. This was the explanation given by Basecamp leadership. However, these policies create an unequal power system. For example, policies that prevent discussions regarding political issues prevent discussion of civil rights issues like the wage gap or systemic oppression. While it doesn’t harm the two white male CEO’s of basecamp to avoid discussions of racism, sexism, homophobia preventing these discussions can harm the employees that experience these challenges. The policy of trying to silence discussions silences those without power.

The policy of trying to silence discussions silences those without power.

For example, let’s say you’re a parent and want to talk about our government’s position on paternity leave.

Guess what?

Under the new policy for banning political discussion you can’t talk about it. We might say “this isn’t related to the job it shouldn’t be talked about at the company”. But I’d argue that is is impossible for people to separate who they are as individuals and the social/political policies that affect their lives with their professional career. Whether paternity leave is available changes how employees plan for and have children. It impacts how the company has to plan for and support these employees. That line between personal life and political policy has suddenly disappeared and now has an impact on both company and employee. There isn’t a way to delineate where the line is on current issues. In reality the boundary between professional life and personal life has become more and more blurred. Trying to separate the two is at best difficult and at worst toxic for employee morale.

Singer’s response in the town-hall to the employee, “I don’t accept that framing…It’s not productive to argue further. I don’t want to argue. This difference in views, it is what makes a political discussion so difficult.” was stating that the discussion, which is important and deeply personal to the employee, is not productive. In reality it was not productive to those with power. Not only are these statements silencing but the leadership team themselves oppressed the voices of others. In the transcript above, Singer has the privilege to silence the argument because he is the head of strategy. That’s a powerful position in a company. The power differential between an employee and head of strategy could be vast. Given the above transcript there doesn’t seem to have been an effort to understand the differing points of view as opinions were too strongly held without room for discussion and disagreement. If you can’t feel safe having difficult conversations and executives discourage them then you further give power to systemic oppression.

One employee sums up the situation of oppression versus intent expertly.

Racism and white supremacy are not things that are so convenient that they only happen when full intention is present, or true malice is present, Evil is not required. We’re not so lucky as for this to come down to good and evil. It’s as simple as creating a space where people do not feel welcome. The silence in the background is what racism and white supremacy does. It creates that atmosphere that feels suffocating to people. It doesn’t require active malice. It’s not that convenient.

Unnamed Basecamp employee

What could be done better

From my own professional experience the following practices could have helped avoid these situations. Keep in mind my limited perspective here given my own privilege. These can be distilled down into three concepts:

Have difficult conversations

Something that was mentioned during the Basecamp crisis, was that many of their political conversations devolved into toxic heated disagreements. Without the skills to have difficult conversations it becomes easy for disagreement to be interpreted as an attack. This is what is known as the backfire effect. The Oatmeal has an excellent cartoon illustrating the concept which I recommend a read through.

Without the skills to have difficult conversations it becomes easy for disagreement to be interpreted as an attack. This is what is know as the backfire effect

What is a difficult conversation?

A difficult conversation is a discussion that makes those involved uncomfortable. They can be uncomfortable due to the topic or the feelings involved. In Basecamp’s instance, having the difficult conversation around their “Best Names Ever” list was avoided because it was deemed polarizing. Sidestepping a difficult conversation or ignoring it doesn’t make it go away. Handling the situation with avoidance leads to resentment and in Basecamp’s case a town-hall meeting where there was a mass exodus of employees. Ouch.

Having difficult conversations, even when they are uncomfortable, is an important skill to develop. There are many theories and concepts to choose from when learning about conflict and communication style. This is something that everyone has to discover what works best for them. Reading a variety of theories from diverse perspectives will help encourage more thoughtful difficult conversations.

I’m choosing to keep the focus of this article on the the issues of power, privilege, and diversity instead of specific communication strategies. I’m happy to provide resources and theories I’ve found useful if asked in the comments.

Strong opinions, weakly held

Everyone has a preference with how work gets done. Some preferences are stronger than others. The key point is that no matter how you might feel on a topic; being open to different opinions and perspectives is important to encouraging inclusivity and fostering innovation.

The key point is that no matter how you might feel on a topic; being open to different opinions and perspectives is important to encouraging inclusivity and fostering innovation.

Opinions regarding race, gender, and privilege (but not limited to) should especially be flexible given each individual’s personal ideas, experiences, and privileges. Singer saying that he doesn’t live in a “white supremacist culture” is a strong opinion that he needed a more flexible grip on. This strong opinion shutdown the conversation.

Basecamp could have reworked their initial strong opinion by starting with their core goal, “We’d like to no longer discuss societal and political topics at work.”.

That’s a pretty strong opinion. Let’s smooth it out.

To make sure we’re not overly reliant on this idea we could add a second sentence, “Before implementing this policy we’d like to open it up to feedback and discussion.”. Notice that the first sentence is direct in its intention and intended actions. The second sentence allows for the strong opinion to be tempered by the request for feedback. One step further would be to have a facilitator (other than those making the decision) gather the feedback and anonymize it.

Critique in Love

We all have disagreements. Your colleague may think that option A is a stellar choice while you couldn’t disagree more. When we degrade other’s opinions as wrong or not productive we shut down different perspectives in the process. Shifting focus from, “I’m right, you’re wrong” to “Everyone here wants to do the best work possible” ensures that you view different opinions as positive forces. When we enter into a discussion with the assumption that everyone wants to do the right thing, we can consider alternative viewpoints with less judgement and more thoughtfulness.

Conclusion

The above is an effort to identify why the above policy decisions applied to company culture is a problematic idea. My hope is that by reflecting and assessing Basecamp’s decision, other companies can choose a more inclusive path. I have a follow-up post that relates to my thoughts regarding Basecamp’s decision and how it effects Rails (spoiler: Rails is not Basecamp).

Heavier read today, but as always, thanks for reading. I welcome comments and/or differing perspectives on the topic.

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