Basecamp’s crazy week…
Roger Stringer / May 01, 2021
8 min read • 23,151 views
First, Casey Newton broke the news on some controversy from Basecamp that happened due to a list:
The controversy that embroiled enterprise software maker Basecamp this week began more than a decade ago, with a simple list of customers.
Around 2009, Basecamp customer service representatives began keeping a list of names that they found funny. More than a decade later, current employees were so mortified by the practice that none of them would give me a single example of a name on the list. One invoked the sorts of names Bart Simpson used to use when prank calling Moe the Bartender: Amanda Hugginkiss, Seymour Butz, Mike Rotch.
Many of the names were of American or European origin. But others were Asian, or African, and eventually the list — titled “Best Names Ever” — began to make people uncomfortable. What once had felt like an innocent way to blow off steam, amid the ongoing cultural reckoning over speech and corporate responsibility, increasingly looked inappropriate, and often racist.
Discussion about the list and how the company ought to hold itself accountable for creating it led directly to CEO Jason Fried announcing Tuesday that Basecamp would ban employees from holding “societal and political discussions” on the company’s internal chat forums. The move, which has sparked widespread discussion in Silicon Valley, follows a similar move from cryptocurrency company Coinbase last year.
Fried’s memo was revised and updated several times; co-founder David Heinemeier Hansson followed with one of his own. Together, they are two of the most outspoken leaders in the entire tech industry on issues related to company culture, remote work, and collaboration. The company has published five books on work culture, one of which was a New York Times bestseller.
But both of their posts avoided discussing the actual series of events that had led up to the policies, which were related directly to the workplace. In fact, the events all took place on Basecamp’s own software, which it sells to other companies on the promise of improving cohesion and reducing stress in the workplace.
Employees say the founders’ memos unfairly depicted their workplace as being riven by partisan politics, when in fact the main source of the discussion had always been Basecamp itself.
“At least in my experience, it has always been centered on what is happening at Basecamp,” said one employee — who, like most of those I spoke with today, requested anonymity so as to freely discuss internal deliberations. “What is being done at Basecamp? What is being said at Basecamp? And how it is affecting individuals? It has never been big political discussions, like ‘the postal service should be disbanded,’ or ‘I don’t like Amy Klobuchar.’”
Basecamp employees are encouraged to discuss the company’s own political positions — or, perhaps more accurately, the founders’ political positions — as much as they like. Keeping track of which issues of the moment are up for discussion thus becomes one more chunk of mental overhead for employees who are already struggling.
Hansson told me that the rules are not draconian — no one is going to be bounced out the door for occasionally straying out of bounds. The founders’ goal is to reset the culture and focus on making products, he said, not to purge political partisans from the workforce.
But to employees, the move was received more as a shift to willful ignorance — about the world around them, and about the lived experiences of the employees who occupied it.
“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 me. “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.”
DHH’s own post has some interesting takes as well:
Casey’s reporting for The Verge brought some of the dirty laundry that helped motivate our change of directionregarding societal politics at Basecamp onto the public record. It erased part of that fine line we try to toe between sharing as much of the inner workings at the company as possible while respecting the confidentiality of employees, internal deliberations, and heated discussions. That’s why we didn’t include it in the public announcements in the first place. It’s difficult to retain good working relationships if you’re concerned about what might be turned into a story or not.
At the same time, leaks of all kinds have brought serious issues to light in the industry. And investigative reporters are not only completely within their right to cultivate and use such leaks, I’d say they’re obligated to do it! So it’s only right and fair that when this is turned at Basecamp, at least when evaluating the reporting, we take it on the chin.
Either way, now that particularly the incident regarding the Best Names List (read Casey’s piece for his reporting based on employee leaks) is on the public record, I think it’s also only right and fair to share our internal response, as well as the specific comment that ended up being reported to HR. Then it’s out there for anyone to consider for themselves.
So if that is something you want, I continue to believe that a diverse workforce _should_ be something that you want, you have to consider what guardrails to put on the internal discourse. My belief is that the key to working with other people of different ideological persuasions is to find common cause in the work, in the relations with customers, in the good we can do in the industry. Not to repeatedly seek out all the hard edges where we differ. Those explorations are better left to the smaller groups, to discussions outside of the company-wide stage, and between willing participants.
I respect that others will come to different conclusions on all of these questions. Particularly around whether the new direction we’ve set at Basecamp, where these societal political questions unrelated to work are being moved from company workspaces to private employee channels, is incompatible with what they want out of a company. We all have our principles, and I will always respect people who are willing to follow theirs.
Yesterday, we offered everyone at Basecamp an option of a severance package worth up to six months salary for those who’ve been with the company over three years, and three months salary for those at the company less than that. No hard feelings, no questions asked. For those who cannot see a future at Basecamp under this new direction, we’ll help them in every which way we can to land somewhere else.
These are really hard questions. I’ve been inundated with emails from executives and employees who are wrestling with them at their companies. I hope that the airing of our dirty laundry, and the shitstorm its caused, can help others answer their own questions better. Whatever the answer they deem right for them.
It’s also a really hard time. We’ve always been a remote company, but we’ve never gone a year and a half without seeing each other. Normally, we’d all have met up thrice during this time to recharge, reconnect, and rehumanize. Add to that all the stress from the pandemic, from those societal politics, from, well, everything we’ve been through recently, and it’s no wonder that everyone is extra vulnerable, extra quick to jump to conclusions, extra likely to escalate. We’re human and that’s a human response.
At Basecamp, it’s going to be a tough transition. We’ve committed to a deeply controversial stance, some employees are relieved, others are infuriated, and that pretty well describes much of the public debate around this too. But this too shall pass. We’ve been in business for over twenty years. Been through a myriad of controversies and challenges, and we’ll be through this too.
You’ll have to read the full posts for yourself to really decide what side you want to see. I think that in the end, Basecamp just needs to follow their own advice, as they said in chapter 87 of their book Getting Real:
When you rock the boat, there will be waves. After you introduce a new feature, change a policy, or remove something, knee-jerk reactions, often negative, will pour in.
Resist the urge to panic or rapidly change things in response. Passions flare in the beginning. But if you ride out this initial 24-48 hour period, things will usually settle down. Most people respond before they’ve really dug in and used whatever you’ve added (or gotten along with what you’ve removed). So sit back, take it all in, and don’t make a move until some time has passed. Then you’ll be able to offer a more reasoned response.