Why Basecamp's New Policies Make it Difficult for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging to Thrive

A few years ago, Basecamp co-founder Jason Fried penned an article in which he talked about the company’s desire and commitment to moving from a team of “mostly male and mostly white” to having a team that is reflective of the diversity of the customers they serve. In it, he talked about the actions the company had already taken to make progress on its goal.

Earlier this week, Fried wrote publicly about changes in policy he and his co-founder were making to reset their company culture. It has been reported that the impetus for those changes stemmed from heated discussion around a more than 10-year-old running list of  “funny client names” that some employees deemed racist.

Simply put, Basecamp’s policy changes amount to privilege not being put good use. It’s privilege that works to advance the agenda of a few, rather than support the well-being and advancement of many.

In addition, these changes put any meaningful diversity, equity, and inclusion work on the chopping block, making it a difficult culture and environment that is not conducive for diverse talent to thrive. 

Here are two of the problematic changes outlined in Fried’s original announcement, as well as in the follow-up from co-founder David Hansson.

1. No more social and political discussions on the company Basecamp account

Change is often messy. It requires hard work. It requires thoughtful discussion that sometimes make people uncomfortable. Conflict and tension are often necessary to bring about positive change. Fried noted these types of discussions proved too much for the company: 

You shouldn’t have to wonder if staying out of it means you’re complicit, or wading into it means you’re a target. 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.

The challenge with not being willing to engage in these types of discussions assumes that these issues don’t affect your employees’ work or directly connect to your business. 

While the idea of the founders may be to get their employees to compartmentalize their thinking, emotions, and conversations at work — to only focus on work–the reality is, most people aren’t built that way.

You can’t eliminate microaggressions at work without talking about the cumulative impact of microaggressions that happen outside of work. You can’t effectively address unconscious bias and how that impacts the customer experience you deliver without acknowledging and talking about how unconscious bias shows up at a societal level.

And you can’t effectively support and create psychological safety for your employees, particularly those who are part of marginalized groups on the receiving end of unjust systems, racism, and other negative actions and behaviors, if you don’t give space for dialogue, empathy, learning through others’ lived experiences, and the introspection that goes along with all of them.

Figuring out how to have these important conversations the right way should be the remedy, rather than shutting them down altogether.

2. No more commenting on social issues not related to the business

In his follow-up commentary, David Hansson explained why Basecamp was taking this stance:

We are not a social impact company. Our impact is contained to what we do and how we do it.

The problem with this line of thinking is you don’t get to control the impact your work has on others. Just as every company delivers an experience whether you plan to or not, every company impacts social issues, whether you comment on it or not. Not commenting on social justice issues in essence means your company is choosing not to stand up for issues that are important for your values, or engage in any activities that could make a difference in causes that impact your team and your customers.

Besides, companies do have power to impact social issues that affect both your customers and your employees. For instance, businesses divesting from South Africa in the 1990s played an important role in ending apartheid. 

In addition, data shows that 70 percent of consumers say it is important for brands to take a stand on social and political issues. That number has increased in recent years, as consumers increasingly want to know that the brands they are spending their money with share their values.

And while plenty of company statements that talk about what is happening in society often leave much to be desired, the customers you serve need to have a way to know what your values are — especially the values that relate to issues unrelated to work, but that are important to them.

If diversity, inclusion, and belonging are important to you and your company, you must be willing to do the hard work associated with creating a culture where they can thrive. 

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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