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An aspiration to “social purpose” has embedded itself across the business world in recent years, appearing on company websites, mission statements and social media accounts. Brands keep telling us they are ethical, sustainable and diverse. Business, it seems, is now good for us.
While political activism has become the new business currency, Basecamp, a collaboration software company that was a pioneer of remote working, has seemingly declared it wants no part in it.
Its founders, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, have published several books distilling their expertise (including It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy At Work). In April, they wrote blog posts introducing policy changes for employees. Political conversation is now banned from channels where staff talk to each other and manage projects: “We make project management, team communication, and email software. We are not a social impact company”. Following this decision, about a third of the company’s workforce left.
Basecamp is not the first tech company to take this unusual stance. At Coinbase, a cryptocurrency exchange, its chief executive Brian Armstrong, declared his company “apolitical” in 2020 — while inviting any employees who didn’t agree with his decision to leave.
With last summer’s political and social movements still fresh in our minds, there has been more onus on businesses to be outspoken on issues such as gender equality, racism and climate change. Many businesses posted black squares on Blackout Tuesday and made pledges in support of Black Lives Matter following the murder of George Floyd. A year later, we might suspect it was all a virtue-signalling exercise, given the lack of follow through at many (although not all) companies.
What I know for sure is that politics and social issues are not only enmeshed in every decision companies make, but they shape the world of work. To ban them from being spoken about openly is hypocritical and alarming. The stats show that increasingly people want to work for employers who align with their values and practise transparency in the workplace. The future is political: 85 per cent of Gen Z believe companies should stand for more than just making a profit.
Do companies need to commit to making the world a better place? At the very least, they shouldn’t stand in the way of others. Basecamp also disbanded its diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) committees, with Fried announcing that “The responsibility for DEI work returns to Andrea, our head of People Ops. The responsibility for negotiating use restrictions and moral quandaries returns to me and David. Back to basics, back to individual responsibility, back to work.”
This move to create an apolitical workplace is more about control than anything else. The founders say: “When we need advice or counsel, we’ll ask individuals with direct relevant experience rather than a predefined group at large.” Who decides who is the right person? The potential for bias and scapegoating is immense.
They claim this move is to avoid dialogue “towards dark places” and are betting that these new rules will make its workspace a better place. For whom? Many people already don’t believe they have a voice at work and this rule would silence them further.
The reality is that we live in a world where politics and social issues are increasingly divisive. Shying away from that reality does nobody any good. All it creates are missed opportunities to encourage empathy and understanding in our workplaces.
It does feel extreme for any company to make an outright ban on political discussions but it highlights a much wider point: many workplaces are ill-equipped to deal with intergenerational and multicultural workforces.
How do we create greater understanding among groups and communities? It’s hard to see how, when Black Lives Matter and racial equity can be a “controversial” or political topic for some when it’s a very personal matter for others.
It’s lazy to ban difficult conversations at work. What is more progressive is to seize the opportunity to help people to talk in a safe environment that safeguards everyone’s wellbeing.
Wherever you sit on this debate, we are not robots who become divorced from the realities of society as soon as we log in on a Monday morning. The issues, such as sexism and racism, that plague our lives outside the office have long been a feature inside many workplaces, and disproportionately affect already marginalised employees.
In order to enact the change we so desperately need in many workplaces, it will require us to get used to a degree of discomfort. First, though, we need to feel free to talk, and to be heard, not silenced.
The writer is author of ‘The Reset: Ideas to Change How We Work and Live’
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