Basecamp Demonstrates Why Shutting Down Political Speech Just Won’t Work
If you don’t design company policies to optimize for justice, you’ll reinforce systemic injustice, hurt your team’s ability to collaborate, and fail to get shit done
Leading in these times is tough. I wrote Just Work: Get Shit Done, Fast and Fair to help leaders navigate some choppy waters. A core premise is that if you ignore the “fair” part, you won’t get shit done. Issues of social justice come with us into the workplace. This is why Basecamp’s ban on political discussions just can’t work. A ban on speech is going to be a much bigger distraction than just doing the work of creating a better working environment. The list of names being mocked at Basecamp was the distraction, not pointing out that it was a mistake and figuring out how not to repeat that mistake. A ban on political speech won’t work, and it will harm a number of employees along the way. Impractical and harmful. Not a winning combination.
There are a lot of different issues to parse in Basecamp’s decision. Was this a code of conduct? Yes, and a poor one. Next week I’ll write about what makes a good code of conduct. Did the founders abuse their power? Yes, and soon I’ll write about putting checks and balances into place so leaders don’t let their egos wreck their companies.
But what I want to focus on first is the issue that prompted them to attempt to shut down political speech. It was an employee who posted the ADL’s pyramid of hate that caused basecamp’s co-founders to attempt to ban political speech at Basecamp. The reluctance of the founders to see the connection between a list that made fun of people’s names and genocide is not unusual.
In my recent book, Just Work, I write about the importance of distinguishing between bias, prejudice, bullying, discrimination, harassment, and physical violations/violence. We cannot treat bias as though it were violence. At the same time, if we are going to treat bias with the seriousness that it deserves, we need to understand the well-worn path from bias to violence, a linkage which the ADL’s pyramid of hate makes clear — uncomfortably clear, but appropriately clear. I am in no way saying or implying that the problematic list at Basecamp meant that anyone at the company endorsed genocide. I am simply saying that if we are going to take antilocution as seriously as we must, we need to acknowledge that the slippery slope between bias and violence is ancient and well-established. We ignore it at our peril.
Here’s how I tried to explain this in Just Work:
When bias gives way to violence — often in a heartbeat — there’s nothing innocent about unconscious bias. Chanel Miller went with her sister to a college party ten minutes from home and woke up in the hospital, having been sexually assaulted behind a dumpster by a man she’d never met. George Floyd bought a pack of cigarettes, the clerk called 911 claiming Floyd had used a counterfeit $20 bill, and 17 minutes later he was murdered by police.
Part of the reason why these stories resonate so powerfully is not because they are unusual but because such violent encounters happen so frequently. Violence occurs in the workplace. But even when it happens outside the workplace, these experiences come to work with us. We must acknowledge them.
When Cary, a Black employee at a tech company, complained about the badge checking at the company’s cafeteria, the mostly white leadership shrugged it off as though it were a form of unconscious bias that they couldn’t do much about. Even if the security guards were unaware of the bias that made them stop Cary and other Black employees but not white employees, what was happening was more than a discrete incidence of “unconscious bias.” Given the dynamic of bias to violence, racism, that is prevalent for Black people in our society, what was happening went beyond a discrete incident of bias or prejudice.
The executives’ job was to eliminate racism in the workplace. Yet, they were in denial that this was racism…When Cary sent the executive team an email that mentioned Breonna Taylor, and explaining that brushes with violence outside the office had worn her down and left her emotionally raw, they brushed this off.
It was impossible for her not to bring such experiences into work. But the white executives had no empathy, refusing to acknowledge that this badge-checking incident in the cafeteria had anything to do with racism; indeed, when they were confronted by it, each of them in a different way said things that reinforced a “she’s an angry Black woman” bias.
The white executive’s response was a classic example of denial, if not strategic ignorance. He didn’t want to consider the possibility that what he dismissed as everyday unconscious bias in the company cafeteria was somehow connected to police killings. But given that it is connected, and that people all over the United States and even the world were protesting just this sort of systemic racism, the implication that his ignorance granted him some sort of immunity from engaging with the issue was inexcusable.
The founders of Basecamp made a similar mistake when banning political speech.
One employee persisted in trying to make clear “that the way we treat names — especially foreign names — is deeply connected to social and racial hierarchies.” The employee discussed the shooting spree in Atlanta, and the way that the names of the six Asian victims had been mangled in press reports. The employee wanted Basecamp’s founders to acknowledge that even things that may seem small can reflect and reinforce a much bigger problem of dehumanizing behavior.
Rather than acknowledging the linkage and taking accountability for interrupting it, the founder seemed to think that if he could find a time when the employee had made fun of a name, he’d be off the hook. The fact that virtually all people exhibit bias is the very reason why it’s so important for leaders to interrupt it. But in this case the founder responded to the employee by finding an incident when that employee had participated in a disrespectful discussion about a name. The employee never claimed he himself was bias-free; nor had the employee accused the founder of having more bias than others. The founder’s public attack on the employee is all too typical of how the powerful respond to the less powerful when they don’t want to notice something uncomfortable. They go on the attack, and then they demand that everyone stop talking about the incident. They create a situation in which it is dangerous and difficult to speak truth to power.
Dr. Ruha Benjamin, author of Race After Technology, wrote, “If it is the case that inequity and injustice [are] woven into the very fabric of our societies, then that means each twist, coil, and code is a chance for us to weave new patterns, practices, and politics. The vastness of the problem will be its undoing once we accept that we are pattern makers.” It is a leader’s job to notice these patterns and to make better ones. Basecam’s founders, however, decided they would point the finger at the employee who was part of this pattern and then forbid anyone from mentioning the pattern, lest they then get blamed for it.
This was no doubt terrible for the employee. But it will be worse for the founder and his company because going forward employees will not tell him the truth. That will harm him, and his company. The unfortunate, and all too common, refusal to acknowledge or consider the link between bias and violence was harmful on its own, but the response to try to ban political speech will create a culture in which it doesn’t feel safe to say what you think out loud. This will harm innovation, kill the goose that lay the golden egg for Basecamp. When I worked in the Soviet Union, I worked with a physicist who late one night clutched his head and cried out, “My brain! My brain!” He explained that he couldn’t do the scientific work he was expected to do when there were so many things he was not allowed to discuss openly. He emigrated.
If the founders think they can successfully control what employees talk about, they dramatically overestimate their power. Especially founders who hired opinionated people who can easily get jobs elsewhere will not be successful at banning political speech. All they will do is drive talk underground from employees who can’t get jobs elsewhere, and drive employees who can out the door.
Social injustice issues enter the office, ready or not — so you may as well get ready if you are a leader. If you don’t design your company with justice in mind, you’ll reinforce systemic injustice and harm your team’s ability to collaborate.
Leaders can learn how to have conversations about social justice issues in productive ways, in ways that will improve the odds that colleagues will respond to one another with the kind of compassion and support that are essential to successful collaboration. For example, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the The law firm Holland & Knight held a town hall over Zoom with more than 1,300 people who worked there. Several people told stories about personal experiences they’d had with police brutality. A Black paralegal assistant who’d recently joined the firm described watching one of his relatives be murdered by the police and the resulting trauma suffered by his family. Hosting such a town hall was vital to interrupting the tendency of white employees to distance themselves from the reality of police violence. This violence wasn’t happening to “other” people “elsewhere.” It was happening to their own colleagues in their own community.
Having this conversation took some time — about an hour and a half for 1,300 people. That is a lot of person-hours. But it was education, not a distraction. Investing in this time made it much more likely that the lawyers at that firm could work with each other and with their clients productively. They found that addressing the problem of racism head-on actually took less effort than pretending it’s not happening. But they had leaders who stood up and explained why this was a priority. They did not allow anonymous chat boards to run while people spoke.
Contrast this with what happened at a tech company here in Silicon Valley. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the company also held a town hall. But the town hall was not dedicated to the issue of how the Black Lives Matter movement was impacting Black employees. It was the usual weekly meeting. One Black leader at the company, one of only a handful of Black employees, stood up and volunteered to share how the events so much in the news were impacting her, personally, as a Black woman in America. She gave an emotional talk. As she spoke, someone posted on the public chat, “Can we move on now?” The CEO could have pulled the plug on the public chat. He could have stood up and said, “This is not how we are going to respond to our colleagues who are hurting right now.” Indeed, anyone at the company could have confronted this anonymous comment. But nobody did. The “Can we move on now” comment was allowed to stand. The vast majority of employees felt terrible about what had happened — and they felt complicit. They had been silent bystanders. The Black leader left the company, leaving a giant hole on the executive team they’ve still been unable to fill. A culture of bullying deepened, and collaboration was harmed.
That “can we move on now” comment was the giant distraction, not the coming to grips with social issues that were inevitably going to make themselves manifest in the workplace. Imagine what could have happened at that company if its leaders had taken just a little bit of time to think about how to have this conversation?
As Toni Morrison wrote, “The very serious function of racism. . . is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being . . . None of that is necessary.” It’s not doing the work of creating a more just workplace that is the distraction. It’s the injustice itself that keeps us from doing our work.