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Opinion: Why banning politics at work may not help a company be more productive

The management of Basecamp, which makes project management and communications software, recently unveiled a new policy intended to eliminate disruptions at work, but its actions have led to the opposite result: chaos inside the firm. Dozens of employees, some of whom had worked for the Chicago-based tech company for over a decade, resigned after Chief Executive Jason Fried banned conversations on work accounts about politics and social issues.

“We don’t have to solve deep social problems, chime in publicly whenever the world requests our opinion on the major issues of the day, or get behind one movement or another with time or treasure,” Fried wrote to employees on April 26. “These are all important topics, but they’re not our topics at work — they’re not what we collectively do here.”

The reason behind the new rule was simple, according to Fried: discussing politics creates an unproductive environment and does not help the workers to focus on their mission. However, a third of the employees didn’t appreciate the changes, which also included trimming perks, eliminating “360 reviews” that allowed employees to evaluate their supervisors and abandoning in-house advisory committees.

In an open letter to Fried and his co-founder, David Heinemeier Hansson, some of the workers quoted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and accused the founders of being oppressive.

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Employees evidently saw in the change an unwillingness by their bosses to recognize them as individuals with different backgrounds, perspectives and voices. Such restrictions are uncommon, particularly in the tech industry, which is known for giving workers many avenues to express themselves; some companies consider such opportunities as an essential part of staying creative and innovative as a brand. Also, it doesn’t seem fair to take away from employees their freedom to discuss whatever they want with their colleagues. Especially when having fun is mentioned in the company’s goals, on par with building products.

Yet some of the fun employees were having on their company accounts turned out to be not so innocent. Verge discovered that the main reason behind the new corporate policy was the inappropriate comments employees had made about Basecamp customers. For many years workers maintained a so-called “Best Names Ever” list, where they put in customers with names they thought were funny. Journalists found that many names in the document have African or Asian origins and called this kind of entertainment racist. Hansson argued that the list wasn’t racist, but he admitted that he should have put an end to it a long time ago, as mocking any customer’s name is disrespectful.

The decision by Basecamp’s management to revise the policy seems to have come from a good place. But did they choose the right tools to address the controversy? Wouldn’t it have been easier to ban offensive speech than to make employees censor themselves every time they want to chat about politics or social issues?

Fried and Hansson confessed that they didn’t expect the blowback that their decision generated. They apologized but refused to reverse the changes. From the beginning, Fried compared the new rules to a product iteration that might not immediately please all the customers, or employees in this case. The question is: do those changes really improve the product (or the company), and will they be appreciated by the workers in the long run? Because the short-term results don’t bode well.


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