The company’s senior leadership wanted to quell employees’ concerns, and only made things much, much worse
At 8AM PT on Friday, a bleary-eyed Basecamp CEO Jason Fried gathered his remote workforce together on Zoom to apologize. Four days earlier, he had thrown the company into turmoil by announcing that “societal and political discussions” would no longer be allowed on the company’s internal chat forums. In his blog post, Fried said the decision stemmed from the fact that “today’s social and political waters are especially choppy,” and that internal discussions of those issues was “not healthy” and “hasn’t served us well.” The public reaction had been furious, and Fried said he was sorry for the way the new policies had been rolled out — but not for the policies themselves.
Behind the scenes, Fried had been dealing with an employee reckoning over a long-standing company practice of maintaining a list of “funny” customer names, some of which were of Asian and African origin. The internal discussion over that list had been oriented primarily around making Basecamp feel more inclusive to its employees and customers. But Fried and his co-founder, David Heinemeier Hansson, had been taken aback by an employee post which argued that mocking customer names laid the foundation for racially-motivated violence, and closed the thread. They also disbanded an internal committee of employees who had volunteered to work on issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
On Friday, employees had their chance to address these issues directly with Fried and his co-founder. What followed was a wrenching discussion that left several employees I spoke with in tears. Thirty minutes after the meeting ended, Fried announced that Basecamp’s longtime head of strategy, Ryan Singer, had been suspended and placed under investigation after he questioned the existence of white supremacy at the company. Over the weekend, Singer — who worked for the company for nearly 18 years, and authored a book about product management for Basecamp called Shape Up: Stop Running in Circles and Ship Work that Matters — resigned.
Within a few hours of the meeting, at least 20 people — more than one-third of Basecamp’s 57 employees — had announced their intention to accept buyouts from the company. And while many of them had been leaning toward resigning in the aftermath of Fried’s original post, the meeting itself pushed several to accelerate their decisions, employees said. The response overwhelmed the founders, who extended the deadline to accept buyouts indefinitely amid an unexpected surge of interest.
I. This account is based on interviews with six Basecamp employees who were present at the meeting, along with a partial transcript created by employees. Collectively, they describe a company whose attempt to tamp down on difficult conversations blew up in its face as employees rejected the notion that discussions of power and justice should remain off limits in the workplace. And they suggest that efforts to eliminate disruptions in the workplace by regulating internal speech may cause even more turmoil for a company in the long run.
“My honest sense of why everybody is leaving because they’re tired of Jason and David’s behavior — the suppression of voices, of any dissent,” one employee told me. “They really don’t care what employees have to say. If they don’t think it’s an issue, it’s not an issue. If they don’t experience it, then it’s not real. And this was the final straw for a lot of employees.”
II. While Friday’s meeting would eventually grow heated, it began on a conciliatory note. Fried, who employees described as looking tired, began the meeting by apologizing for announcing the policy changes by a public blog post rather than first telling all employees. Hansson tuned into the meeting from bed, where he reported that he was feeling ill, and after making introductory remarks turned off his camera for the duration of the meeting.
Fried opened the floor for comments and questions. For the next two and a half hours, employees pressed the founders on the policy changes, the events leading up to them, and the state of the company. The first part of the meeting was devoted to discussing the events that had unfolded in the company’s internal Basecamp chat last month, in which an employee had cited the Anti-Defamation League’s “pyramid of hate” to argue that documents like the “funny” names list laid a foundation that contributes to racist violence and even genocide.
Roughly 90 minutes into the meeting, Singer raised his hand and spoke. One of Basecamp’s most senior executives, he had joined the company in 2003, when it was known as 37Signals and consisted of just four people. From his original role designing interfaces, Singer had risen to become head of strategy — essentially, Basecamp’s chief product officer.
Along the way, he had also alienated some of his coworkers by promoting conservative views. In 2016, three employees said, he praised right-wing website Breitbart’s coverage of the presidential election in an internal forum. (About a week before rolling out the policy changes, the founders deleted nearly two decades of internal conversations from previous instances of Basecamp and its other collaboration products. Among other things, this made it more difficult for employees I spoke with to accurately describe past interactions with Singer in the forums.)
In the April discussion about the list of customer names, Singer posted to say that attempting to link the list to genocide was “absurd.” On the Friday call, he went further.
“I strongly disagree we live in a white supremacist culture,” Singer said. “I don’t believe in a lot of the framing around implicit bias. I think a lot of this is actually racist.”
He continued: “Very often, if you express a dissenting view, you get called a Nazi. … I have not felt this is open territory for discussion. If we were to try to get into it as a group discussion it would be very painful and divisive.”
Singer concluded his remarks. Fried responded, “Thank you, Ryan.”
A handful of other speakers followed. Then a Black employee asked if the company could revisit Singer’s remarks. (I’m withholding the employee’s name and other identifying details out of colleagues’ fears that they could be targeted for harassment for speaking out.) ReadMore
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