The real story behind Basecamp’s woke revolt

Basecamp’s co-founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson (DHH) are tech darlings and have written more extensively on corporate culture and collaboration than almost anyone else in the game.

And perhaps that’s why their announcement banning talk about politics on the company’s internal platform probably hit so hard.

We haven’t seen many companies standing up to the woke within their ranks: Red Bull’s CEO fired top executives in North America who were planning to bring racial justice initiatives into the company and Coinbase offered employees a severance package if they just couldn’t stomach the idea of leaving their politics at home when they come to work.

But no company has made the splash that Basecamp did, and over a seemingly innocent policy — don’t talk about politics on the company’s internal platform, while welcoming employees to continue whatever discussions they like in their personal spaces.

It all started with a list of funny names

For a company like Basecamp to enact a policy decision like this, the pot has been being brought to a boil for some time. And in this case, the clincher seemed to come from the most ridiculous of places — a list of funny customer names.

Apparently, back in the day, Basecamp customer service representatives started keeping a list of funny customer names as a way to blow off steam. Over 10 years later, the woke activists at the company decided it was racist because some of the names were of Asian or African descent.

According to insider accounts, an internal “DE&I Council” had been formed in 2020 after George Floyd’s death, and the DHH had encouraged employees to read from the typical woke reading list (For future reference, this was their first mistake on the path of woke). The DE&I council ended up attracting a bunch of support, around one-third of the company, though the founders seemed less than invested.

This is common — many CEOs make the mistake of believing that throwing their woke employees a bone and letting them form their little committees will be enough to appease them. This is almost always wrong.

The DE&I council spent the next year reviewing the company’s hiring practices, their outsourcing, and what types of training they’re bringing in. A few weeks ago, they finally got around to the list of funny customer names, and were determined to make a mountain out of this particular molehill.

The employees noted that there had never been an internal reckoning over the list, and said it was important to discuss why making fun of customers’ names had been wrong. The apology included an image of “the pyramid of hate,” an illustration created by the Anti-Defamation League to show how the most extreme acts of extremist violence are enabled by a foundation of biased attitudes and acts of bias.(Source)

And this is where DHH made another critical mistake — he bent the knee to the mob, calling the existence of the list a “systemic failure” on the companies part, even though both he and Fried had known about the list for years.

The employees obviously took this as positive reinforcement of their position and were emboldened by it.

Here’s the thing: One could make the argument that it is wrong to keep a list of funny customer names. Ok, fine. But just because something is inappropriate does not mean that it is evidence of racism. You cannot give woke employees this inch, because they will use it to take a mile from you every single time.

DHH thought that by acknowledging the mistake, everyone could move on. He didn’t realize that the woke don’t move on. They continue to beat every dead horse simply to prove that they can. When employees continued to press the issue of the list, that’s when the company’s new policies were issued.

It gets worse before it gets better.

The employee revolt that followed the new policies, with around one-third of the company submitting their resignation, should be considered a blessing in disguise. And something tells me that Fried knew what was coming.

In the blog post announcing that political discussions would be banned at work, he quoted Huxley from The Doors of Perception:

“We live together, we act on, and react to, one another; but always and in all circumstances we are by ourselves. The martyrs go hand in hand into the arena; they are crucified alone. Embraced, the lovers desperately try to fuse their insulated ecstasies into a single self-transcendence; in vain. By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude.”

But did he anticipate that much backlash? Probably not. But the success of this announcement shouldn’t be measured by people on Twitter, nor should it be measured by the number of woke employees who resigned.

It should be measured a year from now by how the company is doing, and whether or not they made the choice to stay the course and commit to these policy decisions. Although the company did suspend a senior member of their team for saying he didn’t believe the company was racist (he later quit entirely), they haven’t budged on the policies themselves…yet.

Hopefully, Basecamp will learn from this incident that woke employees cannot be satisfied, and they will do everything to find a molehill they can make into a mountain. If it wasn’t a dumb list of funny customer names, it would have been something else. This is the true lesson every CEO should learn — that you cannot please these employees, no matter how much you try. The answer must be “no, do not bring politics to work, whether I agree with you or not.” Anything less than that will invite chaos to your company, will destroy team psychological safety, kill team collaboration, and have a direct impact on your bottom line.

We should all be striving to create happy, fulfilling workplaces where all employees have access to opportunities to advance their careers and do good work. But sometimes, you have to serve your team by giving them what they need, rather than what they might want.

Losing these woke staff members could be the best thing to ever happen to Basecamp. They now have the opportunity to fill those roles with people who want to come to work and actually do work, rather than act as little activists.

Join my Locals community filled with unwoke activists and join a supportive community that will help you feel a bit saner in insane times.

Organizational psychologist. Coach. Accidental commentator. Unwoke activist. Compulsive knitter. Find me at drkarlyn.com

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