'Toxic turn' | Backlash as former 'best company' vetoes politics chat at work

Backlash as former 'best company' vetoes politics chat at work

Politics is a divisive subject to broach in any conversation, however, is banning all political conversation at work ethical, and does such a move detrimentally affect culture?

This is the debate that has sprung up around the news that US-based software firm Basecamp - a former Forbes best company - has issued new employee guidelines which effectively prevent workers from discussing politics on company forums.

The decision to follow in the footsteps of fellow tech start-up Coinbase in banning political talk was made by Basecamp Co-Founders Jason Fried and David Hansson, who issued a company-wide memo explaining the logic behind the move.

“Today’s societal and political waters are especially choppy... and every discussion remotely related to politics, advocacy or society at large quickly spins away from pleasant,” the memo, seen by Techstory, read.

“It’s not healthy and it hasn’t served us well. And we’re done with it on our Basecamp account where the work happens” the memo goes on to state, referring to the company’s internal digital communications platform.


It’s drawn some severe criticism from both workers inside of the firm and the public, who have noted that it has the potential to marginalise workers.

“Basecamp pulls a Coinbase and decides to exclude marginalized people by prohibiting "political" discussions at work, despite our lives and existence being inherently political,” commented Liz Fong-Jones, a member of the Co-worker Fund Board and a business leader.

“Imagine thinking as a founder that the world at large and how it is governed and how people are treated in it is a thing you can just opt out of at work,” added Author Johnathan Nightingale.

Other criticisms argue the ban will give rise to toxic work culture only favorable to privileged communities and would exploit the marginalised people of the workforce.

‘Funny names’ list

In addition, reports from Platformer’s Casey Newton also claim that the move coincided with an internal investigation into the existence of a ‘funny customer names’ list, maintained by Basecamp’s employees for over a decade.

Newton’s investigation alleges that leaders Fried and Hansson were aware of the list, and consciously chose not to act upon it, leading other employees to lodge complaints with Basecamp’s HR department. This is something Hansson owned up to in a separate blog post justifying the ban.

“There was some awareness at the time within the company that that list had existed and it wasn't acted upon. That is squarely on Jason’s and my record. The list, in itself, is just a gross violation of the trust. It’s just wrong in all sorts of fundamental ways,” he wrote.

Read more from us

In light of the internal unease around the existence of the document, and the ensuing discussion on Basecamp’s platforms, some employees feel that banning political discussion at work is essentially the company’s way of attempting to stop the continued discussion around ethics and morality.

“We've hired opinionated people, we've created opinionated software, and now basically the company has said, ‘well, your opinions don't really matter — unless it's directly related to business," an anonymous employee told Platformer.

"A lot of people are going to have a tough time living with that,” they concluded.

Further motions

VICE also reports that the firm is making ‘an executive power grab’ and cutting a lot of employee perks.

Fried wrote to employees that Basecamp will also be ending what it described as “paternalistic benefits” including “a fitness benefit, a wellness allowance, a farmer's market share, and continuing education allowances.”

Other cuts include the end of workplace committees whilst “moral quandaries” will only be handled by a small executive.

'Censorship is a major concern'

Speaking to HR Grapevine, Karen Holden, CEO of A City Law Firm, says that whilst the move may have been born of good intentions, banning any discussion at work may have serious consequences. "There is a genuine concern that discussing divisive topics, be that politics, religion or even sport can divide a workplace and may disproportionately exclude minority groups.

"However, implementing carpet bans may impact on the wellbeing of staff and their mental health. We would argue that is far more divisive than allowing healthy discussions to occur, provided it is not discriminatory or alienating people. Censorship is a major concern and quite rightly. It is however, really important that all businesses do have up-to-date policies for their staff, especially in respect of equal opportunities and equality," she adds.

The impact on company culture

Also speaking to HR Grapevine, Jeremy Coy, Associate in the employment team at Russell-Cooke, said that in this specific instance “the lack of clarity as to what ‘societal and political topics’ are could cause more problems than it solves”.

He added: “Imposing broad bans on any such discussions could have the unintended result of stifling employees’ relationships with one another and censoring exchanges of ideas and views. Only when employees’ discussions become heated and/or personal would action usually need to be taken and this should be the case whether the cause of their disagreement is political or not.

Have you enjoyed this piece?

Subscribe now to myGrapevine+ and get access to exclusive new content, and the full content archive.

Be the first to comment.

You are currently previewing this article.

This is the last preview available to you for 30 days.

To access more news, features, columns and opinions every day, create a free myGrapevine account.