In Oct. 2020, Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong took a divisive stance on keeping politics out of the workplace. Sparked by employee walkouts in reaction to Armstrong's reluctance to publicly comment on the BLM movement, this stance was cemented in the wake of heated political discussions preceding the Nov. 2020 US Presidential elections. In Apr. 2021, Basecamp founders Jason Fried and DHH followed suit, stating that there were to be no more societal or political discussions in workplace channels.
Both companies issued the statements alongside generous severance packages ranging from three to six months' pay and benefits. In the aftermath, Coinbase lost 60 employees, representing 5% of its workforce, and Basecamp lost 20 employees, representing a staggering 35% of its workforce.
While long backstories are needed to examine those as case studies (along with a sense of base rate attrition from such a severance policy alone), this got me interested in the philosophical idea of what role politics ought to play at work. If every company had to issue a "Yea or nay?" directive tomorrow regarding politics in work platforms, what should they do?
From the employee side, I get that people want to work somewhere that reflects their values. I would certainly be reluctant to take a comparable role at a payday loan provider or tobacco producer. For many people, this reflection of values extends to working somewhere that represents their political views. Identity at work, especially for millenials seems to have moved from "What are we creating?" to "What do we stand for?". The fusion of these has led to confusing wonders such as Ben & Jerry's What's New page, which provides you with 8 Ice Cream and Beer Pairings Perfect for St. Patrick's Day followed by a digestif of The Derek Chauvin Murder Trial: What's At Stake. Both highly topical and important topics to be sure, but a little more than I bargained for with my soft serve and sprinkles.
In my experience, I have had positive political experiences at work which involved listening to people from specific groups share their personal experiences and concerns on a relevant topic. Given the size and absolute diversity of the workplace, I gained a perspective wholly unavailable to me given my friend group outside of work. However, these sessions involve sharing of exclusively mainstream left-wing views which are far from unanimous. And I'm confident that these public sharing sessions would not be so well-received if they centered on right-wing views, which hints at the heart of the problem.
What people really want with politics in the workplace, as evidenced by the walkouts in 2020, is a place to share their political views and have them affirmed by leadership. Opposing views are loudly decried and end up triggering many. Sharing political views on a podium, at work or elsewhere, does not permit for safe rebuttal or dissent. Speaking to an audience of more than a couple of people quickly triggers the identity and posturing part of our brains and pushback is perceived as a threat to be neutralized. Somebody must win the public opinion. What was once a place to work together on creating a specific value to society quickly devolves into another shouting match.
What really changes hearts and minds are individualized, intimate conversations. People often say that you ought not to talk about religion or politics at work but I disagree. In a one-on-one setting, especially at work, it's much easier to know that we're on the same team. We can argue about the whole world, move on positions without losing face, and grab a drink afterwards, closer than we were before. Things get hairy when you move to talking about politics at work at scale, as is the case in public work channels. So to all the CEOs mulling over tomorrow's big "Yea or nay?", vote "Nay". Leave the office as a place to drive specific value and unify anyone interested in that mission; let the politics follow from that unity and not divide it.