Companies like Basecamp and Coinbase have tried to ban political discussions at work—experts say it's not that simple

Jason Fried, Founder and CEO of Basecamp, speaks at the @Work event in New York City, on April 2, 2019.
Cindy Ord | CNBC

Last week, project management software company Basecamp made headlines after the organization's CEO Jason Fried announced in a blog post that "societal and political discussions" would be banned from internal work communications. 

"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," wrote Fried. "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. It saps our energy, and redirects our dialog towards dark places."

The post also outlined several other new policies such as no more committees, no more 360 peer reviews and no more "paternalistic benefits" in which the company would stop offering a fitness benefit, wellness allowance, farmer's market share and continuing education allowances, in exchange giving employees cash directly.

TechCrunch reports that after the policy to ban conversations about society and politics was announced, roughly a third of Basecamp's 60 employees quit and accepted buyouts. 

Cryptocurrency company Coinbase faced similar turbulence when CEO Brian Armstrong announced that employees should not take political stances at work in September 2020. Armstrong later revealed that at least 60 employees bothered by the policy had quit and accepted buyouts. 

The trend highlights a crucial question: is it productive, or even possible, to not talk about politics and society at work? 

Coinbase Founder and CEO Brian Armstrong attends Consensus 2019 at the Hilton Midtown on May 15, 2019 in New York City.
Steven Ferdman | Getty Images

What is most productive? 

"I feel very empathetic for the leadership at Basecamp," says Alix Guerrier, CEO of GlobalGiving, a global crowdfunding platform with approximately 70 employees. "We regularly face conversations about participation on our platforms. That is, which social impact organizations, nonprofits are we working with and supporting? And also which funding organizations? Which donor organizations and people are we working with and accepting funds from? And on both sides of that question, controversy, differences in ethical standards come into play." 

But while Guerrier says he does not want to "throw too many stones" he says he has found that shutting down difficult conversations is "an unproductive response." 

"It's not a good situation when you're not helping what could be a productive conversation, be productive, and instead of you're just blocking it off, because the pressure is not going to go away," he says. "It's going to explode in some way, like by having a third of your staff leave, for example."

"I think [Fried] was well-intentioned," says Stephanie Heath, founder of career coaching firm SoulWork & Six Figures. "As a business owner, it makes sense, right? You want people to focus on work."

But ultimately, Heath says that employees will have conversations about society and/or politics outside of work that can, without guidance, sour relationships and decrease productivity. 

"Conversations will come up anyway," she says. "Instead of banning these conversations and encouraging employees to take it outside of work, I think it would be a better idea to set some ground rules on how these kinds of conversations are had."

When workers feel they can bring their honest and complete selves to work, they are more invested, and "that's going to help the bottom dollar," argues Heath. 

What should employers do? 

Health says that companies can set clear guidelines for how workers should respect one another and teach employees how to distinguish the difference between a counter-productive debate and an honest exchange.

"Companies can make it clear that the same way you don't come to your workplace to date, you shouldn't be coming to your workplace to have political sparring sessions," she says. "When heated exchanges happen, some people who are into debating will get excited, and it'll kind of be fun for them. But maybe not for other people. That's why it's helpful to think 'if a given conversation does come up, I'll share my response, but I'm not sharing it to debate with someone, because that doesn't happen here. Just like dating doesn't happen here.'"

David Nour, executive coach and author of Curve Benders says that when business leaders notice workers are having difficult conversations, they should "listen louder" rather than shutting things down. 

"When it comes to what others are experiencing, unequivocally the best thing you can do is listen louder. This isn't about you. Stop talking and just listen," he says. "This whole, 'Let's not talk about politics. It's not healthy and it doesn't serve us well'  idea is so self-centered. And it's skirting the issue, which is that the culture was rotten at the core. It just screams professional immaturity. And fundamentally what's wrong with a lot of tech companies is that they're technically brilliant but emotionally impotent. They put up this facade of what a fabulous company Basecamp or any of these other ones are, and then something like this comes out and it's like, 'Who the hell is running the place? And when did this become amateur hour?'"

Nour suggests organizations structure small conversations so that employees can more easily express themselves and raise important issues and also coordinate mentorship opportunities so that employees can build relationships that help them strengthen their emotional intelligence. 

Is neutrality possible? 

Ultimately, no one CNBC Make It spoke with said it was logistically possible for workers not to talk about society. 

"It's very tempting for people with power of all kinds, whether it's organizational, wealth, etc., to hide behind a veil of neutrality, objectivity, 'focus on the company mission' rhetoric, as long as it is serving their interest," says Guerrier. "But for us, it came down to a question about the fiction of neutrality and what it means to be a neutral platform. There is no such thing as being neutral or completely non-political."

"Work is a part of what we do, work isn't all that we do," says Nour. "Candidates increasingly say that they want to work for a purpose-driven company. Well, increasingly, companies want the holistic you because that's the best version of you.

"And the best version of you lives in a society."

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