One third of employees flee company after CEO rejects ‘woke’ capitalism, tells them to keep ideology out of workplace

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CHICAGO, IL – About one-third of employees of the software company Basecamp quit days after bosses told them to keep ideology out of the workplace and focus on the company’s actual business.

The company, which offers a collaborative project management tool, found itself at the center of a social media storm this week after CEO Jason Fried announced in a blog post on April 26 that employees would no longer be allowed to openly share their “societal and political discussions” at work:

“No more societal and political discussions on our company Basecamp account. Today’s social and political waters are especially choppy. Sensitivities are at 11, and every discussion remotely related to politics, advocacy, or society at large quickly spins away from pleasant.

“You shouldn’t have to wonder if staying out of it means you’re complicit or wading into it means you’re a target. These are difficult enough waters to navigate in life, but significantly more so at work. It’s become too much. It’s a major distraction.”

Fried told employees in the post that they should take conversations of a political or societal nature to other platforms or their personal Basecamp account:

“It saps our energy and redirects our dialog towards dark places. It’s not healthy, it hasn’t served us well. And we’re done with it on our company Basecamp account where the work happens.

“People can take the conversations with willing co-workers to Signal, Whatsapp, or even a personal Basecamp account, but it can’t happen where the work happens anymore.”

Basecamp co-founder & CTO David Heinemeier Hansson echoed Fried’s comments in a follow-up post on April 26.  In the post, he recognizes that the new “etiquette regarding societal politics at work” is controversial, but asserts that the company is making a stand:

“As cliché as it may sound, these are very difficult times in many places of the world, and in America in particular. We’re constantly confronted with terrible tragedies, pulled into polarized political fights, and egged on by social media to engage.

There are many places to be involved, exposed, and engaged in those conversations. Basecamp shouldn’t be one of those places.

Basecamp should be a place where employees can come to work with colleagues of all backgrounds and political convictions without having to deal with heavy political or societal debates unconnected to that work.”

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Despite a promise by Hansson to employees that the policy is not “zero-tolerance, max consequence,” many employees have decided the restriction on their speech was too much.  The reaction was palpable on Twitter.

Tech journalist Casey Newton wrote that about one-third of the company’s 60 employees took buyouts shortly after the blog posts were made:

“About one-third of Basecamp employees accepted buyouts today after a contentious all-hands meeting. I’m told more are coming.”

Employee Mark Imbriaco wrote that he was grateful to Basecamp, but he could not condone the new policy at Basecamp:

“I will always be grateful for the time I spend at 37signals and proud of the work we did. There were and are some amazing people there doing incredible work.

These Basecamp changes are a tantrum from supremely privileged founders who have lost the plot. Very sad to see it.”

Another employee, Zach Waugh, stepped down after years with the company:

“After seven years, today is my last day at Basecamp. I plan on taking a little time off, but if anyone is looking for an iOS engineer, I would love to char. My DMs are open.”

The resignations are not just in the low levels of the company. The head of design, head of marketing, head of customer support, and lead iOS developer have also stepped down from Basecamp because of the new policy.

The controversy at Basecamp began over a decade ago when, in 2019, Basecamp customer service representatives began keeping a list of names that they found funny, according to Newton. He wrote in the Platformer:

“More than a decade later, current employees were so mortified by the practice that none of them would give me a single example of a name on the list.

One invoked the sorts of names Bart Simpson used to use when prank calling Moe the Bartender: Amanda Hugginkiss, Seymour Butz, Mike Rotch.

Many of the names were of American or European origin. But others were Asian, or African, and eventually the list — titled ‘Best Names Ever’ — began to make people uncomfortable.

What once had felt like an innocent way to blow off steam, amid the ongoing cultural reckoning over speech and corporate responsibility, increasingly looked inappropriate, and often racist.”

Newton said that “woke tensions boiled over” after a new company hire volunteered in December to help the company with diversity issues and included criticizing the “Best Names Ever” list. Newton said a third of the company’s employees joined a diversity initiative with the volunteer.

Two employees who had contributed to the name list asked why the employees never faced an “internal reckoning” over the list. The two employees issued apologies for their roles and included a link to a “pyramid of hate” from the Anti-Defamation League.

Newton wrote:

“The pyramid lists “non-inclusive language, microaggressions” at the bottom and “genocide” at the top, saying, “If people or institutions treat behaviors on the lower levels as being acceptable or ‘normal,’ it results in the behaviors at the next level becoming more accepted.”

“Basecamp chief technology officer and co-founder David Heinemeier Hansson, the father of the popular web development framework Ruby on Rails, condemned the list of funny names but found the invocation of genocide to be an example of ‘catastrophizing’ that had the effect of shutting down rational conversation.

When one employee continued to push this line of logic, Hansson pointed out that that employee, himself, had participated in discussions making fun of customers’ names. ‘You are the person you are complaining about,’ he thought.”

The new “societal and political” stance taken by Basecamp is not happening in a vacuum.

Coinbase faced a similar internal struggle late last year when CEO Brian Armstrong denounced debates around “causes or political candidates” arguing that such discussions distracted from the company’s core work.

 About 60 members of Coinbase’s 1,200 person staff took buyouts in light of the internal policy.

To summarize his position to Basecamp employees, Fried concluded:

“We make project management, team communication, and email software. We are not a social impact company. Our impact is contained to what we do and how we do it.

We write business books, blog a ton, speak regularly, we open-source software, we give back an inordinate amount to our industry given our size. And we’re damn proud of it.

“Our work, plus that kind of giving, should occupy our full attention. We don’t have to solve deep social problems, chime in publicly whenever the world requests our opinion on the major issues of the day or get behind one movement or another with time or treasure. These are all important topics, but they’re not our topics at work — they’re not what we collectively do here.”

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