Basecamp Gets Based

The web services company made some surprising but interesting changes to a few policies

Basecamp, a web application development company based in Chicago, announced a series of policy changes aimed at improving workplace conditions. The most controversial change is in regards to political speech on the company’s internal chatroom; effectively immediately “societal and political discussions” are prohibited. In a follow up to the official announcement, partner David Heinemeier Hansson explained why the change was being made

“Basecamp should be a place where employees can come to work with colleagues of all backgrounds and political convictions without having to deal with heavy political or societal debates unconnected to that work.

You shouldn't have to wonder if staying out of it means you're complicit, or stepping into it means you're a target. That is difficult enough outside of work, but almost impossible at work.

By trying to have the debates around such incredibly sensitive societal politics inside the company, we're setting ourselves up for strife, with little chance of actually changing anyone's mind. These types of discussions are so difficult that even if we were having them at the best of times, together in person, with trust batteries fully charged, we'd struggle. And we have none of those advantages right now, so it's not a surprise the results have been poor.

We also like to tell ourselves that having these discussions with the whole company is "healthy". I used to think that too, but I no longer do. I think it's become ever more stressful, unnerving, and counterproductive. No comment thread on Basecamp is going to close the gap on fundamental philosophical and political differences. And we're left worse for wear when we try.”

Both Hansson and Jason Fried, co-founder of Basecamp and the author of the official post announcing the rule changes, explicitly encourage their employees to be as political as they wanna be in their off time and on their social media accounts, and that this cap on political and social discussions applies only to official company workplace channels. 

The decision seems a no-brainer -- Basecamp pays its employees to do a job, not to argue about political and social issues in the company chatroom. I’m so old (and I’m only 40!) that I can remember when companies strongly discouraged those sorts of conversations in the workplace for fear of HR nightmares and workplace discrimination lawsuits. Strictly from a business perspective, allowing and actively promoting contentious arguments over hot button topics is a really bad idea. 

This rule change didn’t come out of nowhere -- Basecamp management has been in a struggle with its employees over a list made by customer service representatives in 2009 titled “Best Names Ever”, which was a running list of the funniest customer names the representatives came across in their work. Some of the names on the list were of foreign origin and, well, I’m sure I don’t have to explain how that is playing out in 2021. If you’re interested in reading the backstory I recommend The Verge’s piece detailing the story and Hansson’s rebuttal to it. I don’t want to make that story the focus of this post, I bring it up to illustrate why some people within Basecamp and critics outside the company view this move as less of a principled stance and more of an attempt to shut down an uncomfortable conversation Hansson and Fried are not interested in participating in. 

Going a bit deeper into the official announcement, one gets the feeling that there is more to these changes than just a desire to stop political speech on company channels. The section that caught my attention is this one about the benefit structure at Basecamp

“2. No more paternalistic benefits. For years we've offered a fitness benefit, a wellness allowance, a farmer's market share, and continuing education allowances. They felt good at the time, but we've had a change of heart. It's none of our business what you do outside of work, and it's not Basecamp's place to encourage certain behaviors — regardless of good intention. By providing funds for certain things, we're getting too deep into nudging people's personal, individual choices. So we've ended these benefits, and, as compensation, paid every employee the full cash value of the benefits for this year. In addition, we recently introduced a 10% profit sharing plan to provide direct compensation that people can spend on whatever they'd like, privately, without company involvement or judgement.”

While I too believe Basecamp’s heart was in the right place, policies such as these do overly involve a company in its employees’ off-the-clock behavior. Giving employees a cash payout to spend on wherever they choose is a wise choice, and also sidesteps the issue of how a company should equally compensate employees who choose to not participate in those programs. Seeing the words “paternalism” and “nudge” this close together reminds me of a certain ideology that the company seems to be rejecting, which pleases me greatly. I’m also pleased that Basecamp chose to explicitly invoke the ideas of individuality and privacy and to positively acknowledge that its employees have both. 

The two other major changes at Basecamp are the elimination of committee-based decision making, specifically the DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) committee, and ending yearly 360 peer reviews in favor of direct communication between managers and employees throughout the year. All of these changes emphasize the company’s commitment to stepping away from the political arena and acknowledging its employees as individuals, each with their own views and needs. The emphasis on individualism and retreat from specific political positions is refreshing yet surprising coming from Basecamp -- the company has developed a reputation for being one of the more woke in the tech sector and has often opined on political issues not related to their business (another activity Hansson has said the company will no longer engage in). 

It’s valid to speculate on if these changes are due to their current controversy or represent a true philosophical sea change for Hansson and Fried. I believe Fried is sincere when he points out that encouraging employees to get their politics all over everything has been a toxic, unhealthy, time-sucking distraction from the work that has to get done; if this realization is the launchpad for Basecamp to rethink its entire relationship with its employees in favor of a more decentralized, individual focused one I’m all for it. 

It is also fair to speculate on Basecamp’s decisions being a one-off outlier or the beginning of a trend of employers realizing the struggle session model is not conducive to a healthy, well functioning workplace. I hope it’s the latter, I don’t see how the current environment can last.