A Look Behind Basecamp’s Controversial Employment Policies

Basecamp CEO Jason Fried announced some changes at the remote working platform company on Monday. The most significant change seems to be the one over political speech:

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.

As companies have become more involved in politics–and some companies facing scrutiny not for speaking up–the culture becomes tense. Fried’s memo seems to attack that problem by saying we just aren’t going to talk about politics. This, of course, can lead people to think that the company doesn’t support the things they struggle with, making some people feel like that they have less of a voice. 

But, Basecamp sells a product, and as such, they want to sell to everyone they can. Becoming embroiled in politics can make that difficult. And when political discussions divide teams, it can be challenging to work together. And as Fried points out, “when you get to a certain count — customers or employees or both — there’s no pleasing everyone. You can’t — there are too many unique perspectives, experiences, and individuals.”

But, there appears to be more to the story than an overarching goal to be kind to everyone and acknowledge differences of opinions.

Casey Newton writes at Platformer that it isn’t just about politics; it’s about a list of funny names. Basecamp employees have kept a list of funny customer names for over a decade, and people started to grow uncomfortable with this. The list began to seem more racist than funny. Rather than telling employees to stop with the list, the company decided to do a cultural shift.

And while everyone is talking about the political rule, I think it’s essential to look at the memo as a whole. It’s not about politics; it’s about adulthood.

If you can’t handle yourself on political issues, you won’t discuss political issues at work. But, look at the other things Fried changed:

  • No more paternalistic benefits. Basecamp has offered things like farmers’ market benefits and health clubs. Instead, they now say that they will give employees the extra money these benefits cost and let employees decide for themselves. Of course, there are limits and Basecamp isn’t doing away with healthcare benefits–even if they wanted to, the law doesn’t allow them to.
  • No more committees. This includes the Diversity and Inclusion committee, which is a bit of natural subject for committees. It’s hard to argue you’re inclusive when one person (regardless of race or gender) makes all the diversity decisions.
  • No more lingering or dwelling on past decisions. It’s done. Time to move forward. The negative aspect of this is you may not learn from your mistakes if you don’t spend time thinking about them.
  • No more 360 reviews. Managers will be responsible for feedback, not everyone else.
  • No forgetting what we do here. The concept of bring your whole self to work is changed to bring your best Basecamp employee self to work. Be yourself at home.

While some may say these things shouldn’t change–everyone wants more and better benefits, right? But, what Basecamp is doing instead is giving employees the money and letting them choose, rather than having the company choose. See? Adult choices.

The same with removing the committees and not dwelling on past decisions. While sometimes committees can be good, often, they are an excuse to not go forward with an idea and an attempt to grab praise if it works and deflect criticism if it fails. Instead, do your job, make your decisions, take your consequences, and move on.

A fascinating adult move is the no more 360 reviews, which are where your boss, your peers, and your direct reports all review your work. Some people may find it shocking that the complaint is that “peer feedback is often positive and reassuring, which is fun to read but not very useful. Assigning peer surveys started to feel like assigning busy work.” So, they banned them because they were too positive?

But, I have the same complaint about 360 surveys. They allow managers to avoid tough conversations, and you don’t get helpful information. Most people don’t have 400 direct reports–they have three or so–and it’s easy to figure out who said what, even though it’s supposed to be anonymous. Peers may not have an accurate idea of your actual work assignments, and again, you only have a few. There’s no upside for someone saying something negative in a 360 survey. Instead, managers give feedback as needed–a very responsible decision.

The final one ties back into the first idea of no politics–let us focus on work. We’re at work to work, not to fret about other things. So, stop making a list of funny names that can too quickly become racist. Stop worrying about politics at work–you can do that on your own. Everybody behave at work, take responsibility for yourself and your job. 

There are some negative aspects of this, of course.  Any massive change can have a negative impact on a company’s culture. People don’t like change in general, and this is a lot at once. The policies will undoubtedly change again, as Basecamp tweaks things to make them better. If the employees rebel,they may have to return.

But, overall, it’s all about adulting. It’s a refreshing change.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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