How to Ruin Employee Engagement and Become a Company that Doesn’t Care
Updated: Feb 21, 2022
(a la Basecamp)
Full disclosure: I do not use Basecamp, but when I saw comments from business coaches Kronda Adair and Trudi Lebron on social media about Basecamp’s latest announcement and from my perspective as someone who podcasts about "companies that care," I couldn’t resist commenting. And one of the things I love about being my own boss: I can rant at my leisure!
On Monday, Basecamp cofounder Jason Fried announced several changes at the project management software company. You can read the full statement here.
Apparently the new policies disguised as "getting back to business" grew out of a racist, xenophobic incident at Basecamp that went back to 2009, according to this illuminating article by Casey Newton, "What really happened at Basecamp."
Customer service reps created a list of names they found funny. You can imagine what kind of names made this list...at times, names of Asian or African origin. This list has been discussed on Basecamp online workspaces, and employees have been increasingly concerned about the lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) at the company.
Women and Asian-Americans have left in droves. This letter from Jane Yang, hired only two years ago as Basecamp's new data analyst and now taking a leave from the company for her mental health, sheds light on the toxic, top-down atmosphere there.
These two white guy cofounders didn't want a reckoning. They didn't want to do the work to fix what's broken. They want to make it go away.
As someone who believes in throwing our support behind “companies that care” about making the world a better place for all, here’s why I highly recommend taking your business elsewhere.
A company that bans societal and political discussions does not care about people
How can you be a technology company that supports other businesses without talking about social and political issues? For example, according to Jane Yang, Basecamp got customer support inquiries after the January 6 insurrection, asking whether Basecamp “discriminated” against its customers and whether it supported “free speech." How do you address this work issue without discussing it?
How do you support an employee whose parent died of COVID? Whose child's school had a lockdown because a child brought a gun to school? How do you tell employees they have to wear masks or get COVID vaccines before returning to the office? How do you support women feeling traumatized during the Kavanaugh hearings because of their own sexual harassment and assault incidents?
How do you support Black employees who are reeling from the ongoing killings of Black people at the hands of police, or Asian-Americans who have record harassment and bullying? We know that people of color notice when their workplaces don't address racism, don't address their trauma from Black bodies being killed in the street, and don't create ways for them to bring their whole, unfiltered selves to work.
How will we take care of each other if we do not discuss these things?
I want to spend my money on companies that take a stand, not shirk from their responsibilities. Jason Fried and his cofounder David Hansson are misguided in banning these types of discussions in an attempt to shield themselves and protect other people who feel uncomfortable talking about microaggressions (like making fun of people's names), race, immigration, COVID, guns, sexism, or climate change.
Taking a stand for justice and against oppression is not partisan. It’s about justice and humanity. It’s about caring for other people, and not just about the business.
No more committees might sound good on the surface, but it guts any collaboration and gives executives free rein.
The problem with no committees is that it focuses all the decision making at the top, to the founders. That is exceedingly problematic. And in no place more than DEI. They announced that “the responsibility for DEI work returns to Andrea, our head of People Ops.”
DEI experts agree that these programs will fail if they fall to just one HR person...especially if the HR person is a white woman. At Basecamp, they had set up a DEI council in February, which was planning to meet in a few days before the cofounders completely nixed it. They had just developed a structure and prioritized issues.
Just four years ago, Jason Fried penned an article on Inc.com, titled "Diversity Is Not an Accident. Here's How One Founder Is Trying to Make Change. If you want your work force to reflect the rest of the world (and your customers), change your behavior." I'm not sure if the pod people got hold of him or what happened, but my suspicion is the work got too hard.
It's all too easy to preach diversity, but when someone actually confronts you about whether you're actually doing the work, many flee and crawl under their rocks.
Apparently the new DEI council was hugely popular with employees and driven by them. More than a third of the company (20 out of 58) had expressed interest. According to Casey Newton, "they began examining Basecamp’s hiring processes, which vendors the company works with, how Basecamp employees socialize, and what speakers they might invite to one of the all-remote company’s twice-yearly in-person gatherings...and began to discuss the list of customer names."
If you were a Basecamp employee who had volunteered for this council and were beginning to have these hard conversations, and the executives completely shut you down, how would you feel?
The only message this mandate sends is that the cofounders don’t give a flying fig what anyone else thinks about DEI or any other subject. It’s a top-down organization with rigid boundaries.
Banning societal and political discussions, plus no committees, also means no employee resource groups
We know that one of the best ways to create a sense of belonging at work is to create employee resource groups for marginalized groups of people…like Black employees, women, those of Asian descent, LBGTQIA+, those with disabilities, and Latinos. It’s important for these folks to have a safe space to talk openly about their work experiences and collaborate on pushing for change in the company.
These groups are especially important for tech companies like Basecamp, which are dominated by white guys.
But if you cannot discuss social or “political” issues, and you can’t have a committee, it’s impossible to have employee resource groups.
And if you ban any possibility of employee resource groups, you have no hope of being a caring, inclusive company.
The white guys at the top make all the rules
“No more lingering on past decisions” and “no more 360 reviews” mean the cofounders’ dictates are solid, with no questioning and no discussions (like about the unfortunate list of names). Fried cites the discomfort of having peers give feedback about each other, but the value of 360 reviews is not peer-to-peer feedback…it is allowing employees to give feedback on their supervisors.
Without this communication flow, managers can get away with toxic behavior.
Fried claims that “manager/employee feedback should be flowing pretty freely back and forth throughout the year.” Doubtful, with these types of edicts. Fried calls 360 reviews “performative paperwork.” I think he’s running scared.
I’m with Leapgen cofounder and HR strategist Jason Averbook on rethinking employee evaluations altogether. But if you’re going to stop doing them, you need to replace them with something that actually works. Most employees do not feel safe (and are not safe) being completely honest and direct with their leaders. It's clear that the atmosphere at Basecamp is not open and collaborative.
What these mandates say to me is that Fried and Hansson don’t like the push-back or challenges they’ve been getting on their decisions…and they are slamming the door shut on any employee collaboration or discussion altogether.
“There's always been this kind of unwritten rule at Basecamp that the company basically exists for David and Jason's enjoyment,” one employee told Casey Newton. “At the end of the day, they are not interested in seeing things in their work timeline that make them uncomfortable, or distracts them from what they're interested in. And this is the culmination of that.”
Final lesson: do not make dramatic policy changes in a vacuum
Apparently Fried and Hansson made these decisions completely on their own. Fried closes by saying “No forgetting what we do here…we are not a social impact company.”
You do not have to be doing environmental, philanthropic work to be a social impact company. Every company can be a company that cares, simply by caring for its employees and creating a space where people feel their input is valued and they can come to work as their whole selves.
Sometimes that means challenging injustice and oppression, like showing support for Black Lives Matter, LBGTQIA folx, or Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders so your employees know where you stand. Sometimes that just means inviting and welcoming feedback and collaboration, and giving your employees recognition for challenging the status quo.
Anti-racist educator Melissa Wilson writes on Twitter:
“Teach me about racism, they say.
But DO NOT:
· Hurt my feelings
· Make me upset
· Talk about violence
· Allude to my privileges
· Use language I’m unfamiliar with
· Be too academic, too bold, or too well spoken
· And never, ever contradict what I already believe in”
As Terence Jones said, also on Twitter, about the Basecamp edicts, "White men are tired? Try being a black person. I'm f*cking exhausted."
I think it’s obvious what has been happening at Basecamp, and the cofounders are stamping their feet and throwing a tantrum.
Other companies can learn from their mistakes if they want to create companies that care, where people and customers feel valued and trusted.
Because not only will Basecamp lose employees, they will lose customers too. Kronda Adair recommended an alternative: ClickUp, which has come out decisively after Basecamp's decision as an anti-racist company.
And if you'd like to know how to create a company that truly cares, read my articles, "Eight Steps toward Building a Kinder Workplace, "Ten Ways White People Can Support Black Coworkers," and "Eight Signs You Might Be Working in a Toxic Workplace."
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