Within a week, Basecamp’s loathed no-politics-at-work rule has escalated to a mass exodus. This afternoon, reporter Casey Newton tweeted that around one-third of the company’s employees accepted buyouts following a “contentious all-hands meeting.” The software company behind Ruby on Rails, Campfire, and HEY was, until this week or so, generally perceived by outsiders as one of the good ones.
The stir came out of left field on Tuesday, when co-founder and CEO Jason Fried announced a ban on “societal and political discussions” within the company Basecamp account. The move depressingly aligned with similar internal policies at companies like Google and Amazon, who’ve also lost all semblance of moral superiority. Fried and co-founder David Heinemeier Hansson, who have together authored a handful of books on reimagining the workplace, defended the decision as a positive change for employee well-being and productivity.
“You shouldn’t have to wonder if staying out of it means you’re complicit, or wading into it means you’re a target,” Fried wrote. “These are difficult enough waters to navigate in life, but significantly more so at work. It’s become too much. It’s a major distraction. It saps our energy, and redirects our dialog towards dark places. It’s not healthy, it hasn’t served us well.”
Tech workers on Twitter called the familiar soaring speeches about banning speech “odious” and disappointing, and called for employees at Basecamp to unionize. Others re-circulated a 2020 tweet from David Heinemeier Hansson, complaining about other company leaders who try to “appear apolitical” rather than “not advocate for shitty politics.”
Hansson quipped back at critics with a link to that under his initial policy announcement tweet, writing: “Here’s the main dunk tweet I’ve seen go with that. Just so you don’t have to hunt for it.” He added that he’ll continue to freely voice his political views, just not in internal communications.
As Casey Newton reported a few days later, employees said that the policy change arose from an employee-led diversity and inclusion effort. Newtown reported that over a third of the 58-member staff volunteered to create more inclusive hiring practices and business relationships.
The effort led to a call for the company to address an 11-year-old inside joke with racist overtones. Starting in 2009, Newton reported, customer service representatives compiled a running list of customer names they found funny. This stopped being funny when the list started including names that were apparently funny because they sounded non-European American. This led to employee calls for atonement; Hansson told Newton that he and Fried shared the blame and that the list is “just wrong in all sorts of fundamental ways.” But when that didn’t end the discussion, Hansson reportedly tried to shut down an employee’s view by snarkily reposting an old message from the chat archives, in order to supposedly implicate them, employees balked, and hence the policy update.
We’re not sure exactly what happened in today’s meeting, but employees are attributing their decision to leave to “recent changes and new policies.” Gizmodo has reached out to the co-founders and several Basecamp employees who’ve announced their departure on Twitter. We’ll update this post when we hear back.