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Lessons From Basecamp Blowup And Company Culture Online

A crisis at software company Basecamp raised important questions about workplace communications.

Everybody who has used Zoom, Slack or other work communications tools has made an awkward mistake or perhaps had a chat with colleagues where misunderstandings got out of hand.

But few have had as bad an experience as the executives at the helm of Basecamp, the business software company that saw a significant number of its employees announce on Twitter their intentions to leave or take buyouts after a controversial memo about what can or can’t be said in company forums, and the intent of management to create an apolitical space at work. The incident has raised larger questions about company culture and free expression.

Online discussions have raged about employee versus employer questions raised, and the larger issue of how and if companies should govern or shape speech in the workplace. It is a relevant debate in many industries, including commercial real estate, which are seeking to make strides in diversity and inclusion and attract young talent.

Writers such as Anna Yang pointed out that the no-politics policy can make it awkward for employees to discuss deeply personal issues; she cited HR expert Nicole Kohler, who pointed out it might be interpreted as telling marginalized employees they’re not allowed to correct or discuss behavior from co-workers that makes them feel uncomfortable. Diversity and inclusion executive Sheree Atcheson said the decision was a “step back” and that “to create a more equitable and inclusive society, we must challenge the inequities that exist right now.”

Tech writer Charlie Warzel said that the “leadership from on high” model doesn’t work, and underscores the true difficulty of really listening to employees and cultivating a strong, supportive company culture.

Others, such as Lindsey Kohler, said that some of the policies exemplified subtractive change and simplification, and should be given time to play out. The memo, by Basecamp CEO Jason Fried, has been held up as an example of pursuing a mission-driven culture in challenging times and pushing for focus in a particularly contentious, divisive moment.

Still others say that it's important to note that some long-standing internal issues were the real drivers of the conflict, and they needed to be addressed earlier and more transparently. “Political and societal issues appear to have taken the fall for an internal conflict,” wrote Lance Haun, a director at branding firm Starr Conspiracy.