On Basecamp

Wed, Apr 28, 2021

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When white men get in our feelings

A few days ago, Basecamp, a tech darling helmed by David Heinemeier Hansson and Jason Fried, announced some policy changes. These changes effectively ban Basecamp employees from “societal and political discussions” at work. Unsurprisingly, these changes received quite a bit of attention on Twitter and throughout the tech industry. Shortly thereafer, Casey Newton reported in The Verge about the underlying issues that prompted the policy changes.

What I want to get into here is this response from David, co-founder and CTO of Basecamp. There's a lot here, so I want to walk through it in a bit of detail.

The Intro

It's difficult to retain good working relationships if you're concerned about what might be turned into a story or not.

Your entire image is based on publicly announcing things and being a renegade in the tech industry. You made this a story by posting your policy publicly, and you “didn't even bother to announce some of those changes internally”. Because you've taken away their ability to discuss things internally, several of your employees have since come out publicly against this policy.

And investigative reporters are not only completely within their right to cultivate and use such leaks, I'd say they're obligated to do it!

Yes, that is indeed what reporting is. Are you surprised? You had to have known this would happen when you released your controversial policy publicly. Again, you took away people's ability to discuss these issues internally, so of course they're going to speak out publicly.

That initial disclosure had some inconsistencies and omissions which led to an exhaustive investigation.

There's a whole lot of circuitous language in that sentence - can you clarify what you mean here? What omissions? What inconsistencies? Who did the investigation? Using the passive voice makes it seem like a disclosure just kinda popped up and then it stumbled into an investigation. There's no accountability.

Not only was it disrespectful to our customers, and a breach of basic privacy expectations, but it was also counter to creating an inclusive workplace. Nobody should think that maintaining such a list is okay or sanctioned behavior here.

I agree. Have you reached out to these specific customers and made amends to them for the harm you caused them? If not, then your failure is ongoing and in no way resolved. I'm guessing they would not love to hear that you're laughing at them.

Furthermore, Jason and I should have caught this list. We are ultimately responsible for setting the tone of what's acceptable behavior at Basecamp, and in this instance we didn't. I'm sorry.

How did you miss it? Your company has 58 people. The list has been around since your company was smaller than that. If something is well-known enough inside the organization to become an issue, you should probably know about it. I'm surprised that a company that prides itself on its ability to “Keep everyone in the loop” would have such a profound communication gap. Either you knew about it and you didn't think it was wrong, or you didn't know about it and your whole brand about transparency and directness in communication is a mirage.

Today, in 2021, I'd like to believe that many people would have raised concerns about this list, if it had come to their attention

Making fun of people's names has been bad for a long time. Talking about “the times” and how “sensibilities have changed” is a distraction from the fact that this list is as wrong now as it was when it was created. What's changed is that people are more comfortable bringing it up. And it's on you as a leader to listen, be uncomfortable, and learn.

This is not a mark of failure in and of itself! Yes, I'm embarrassed that we didn't put a stop to this list far earlier. But there are limits to how much it makes sense to beat ourselves up about that. With today's clearer vision, it's apparent that it was wrong and inappropriate. That's progress!

Translation: “This is bad, but please stop yelling at us about it. We've done some token amount of conversation and hand-wringing, now let's move on.” It's progress in the “Two steps forward, one step backward” sense - so sure, I guess!

That's just not an appropriate or proportionate comparison to draw.

It's not your place to decide that. You're in a position of power and privilege - deciding for your employees, especially your marginalized employees, what is “appropriate” or “proportionate” is more paternalistic than fitness benefits and farmer's market shares. It's condescending, and it reflects that you think you're the arbiter of appropriate discourse. Your disdain for committees makes it crystal clear that you're interested in consolidating power with a very small number of people. That is inherently going to marginalize people and harm your employees.

If the stakes for any kind of bad judgement in this area is a potential link to a ladder that ends in genocide, we're off on a wrong turn.

I think you might be projecting here. You're white. I'm white. Society has conditioned us to get defensive when people say we've done something wrong. The pyramid that someone brought up does not say “You made fun of names, ergo you're genocidal”. Take a bit of time to read it and understand it - it says that biases and microaggressions are part of a system that leads to marginalization and normalizes deeper abuses. If your response to “hey, you're doing a bad thing and it's been shown to lead to more bad things in society” is “well now I can't ever admit that I'm wrong,” you should sit quietly with yourself a bit (yeah, I know it's hard, especially for you) and wonder why that is. You might learn something.

And some times they're blind to those mistakes until times or sensibilities change

Hi, that's ableist. Then again, using ableist terms in your writing is nothing new for you.

That does not mean they're irredeemable people or deserve to have the most severe consequences exacted upon them

What are these “most severe consequences” you're talking about? Is this a veiled reference to “cancel culture”? Sounds like you're preparing to defend someone.

In the current environment,

There's that “current environment” again. The “current environment” is “people are more comfortable holding people accountable” - is that a bad thing?

I can completely imagine another company overreacting to an incident like this

Yet you and Jason have spent days blogging about it and trying to explain away a bad decision. That's not overreacting? This is smug and reflects your entire “Basecamp is a shining beacon in a world of shitty companies” ethos. I get it. That has helped you sell books, so I can see why you're holding on so tightly to that veneer of superiority.

At Basecamp, we're going to honestly confront our mistakes, correct our wrongs, and then forgive, and move on

Who is we? Are you talking about you and Jason? Your head of people ops, who's now the sole decision-maker on DEI issues? As an aside, it's not my place to talk about white women's role in upholding white supremacy, so here you go.

Who's forgiving and moving on? You don't get to decide that for the people who work for you. They have autonomy, and it's pretty gross to tell them “ok we discussed this and it got contentious, but we're not going to hold anyone accountable. Onward!”

This employee had taken part in one of the chat room discussions where several names from the list had been bantered around for fun.

I thought we were just talking about people's actions not meaning that they're irredeemable people. So which is it? I'm getting a bit dizzy from the logic here.

I'd also love to dig in on something truly fucked up from Casey's reporting. Can you confirm that you searched the chat history for that person's participation, posted it in a public channel for the whole company, and dressed down said employee for their participation in the harm? If so, that's a pretty gross action from someone who calls themself a “leader”. You have to understand that your words carry a certain weight, because you seem to exercise that authority pretty often. You're not ignorant of that - in what world is it okay to pull up an employee's past message as a “gotcha” when trying to explain away an issue that you frankly just want to move on from. If that's normal behavior for you, you don't deserve to run a company that many people rely on for their livelihood.

I can appreciate how those examples raise the sensitivity of anything related to names, minorities, and power dynamics.

Okay, but if you appreciate it, you wouldn't then dismiss the fact that it's inextricably linked to historical and current racist and colonialist violence. The workplace is not some magical place that's divorced from history and cultural context - in fact, your capitalist and hierarchical organization is one of the main byproducts of that history. People spend a majority of their waking hours at work. They can't flip some switch and all of a sudden exist outside of social and cultural contexts. Even if your intent is not racist or colonialist, your impact is. And your intent does not matter if you're dismissing the impact of your behavior.

We can recognize that forceful renaming by a colonial regime is racist and wrong while also recognizing that having a laugh at customer names behind their back is inappropriate and wrong without equating or linking the two.

There's that royal “we” again. Maybe you can make that distinction as a white European cisgender man living in the United States. A lot of people cannot, because their very existence is politicized and they've faced years and decades of people “having a laugh” at their names. You're projecting your worldview onto a group of 60 people, which either means everyone shares your worldview (we know this to not be true) or you're ignoring a whole lot of context. Both of those are bad.

The name [customer name] is an English surname that you can trace back to the 1500s. It's funny because it sounds like [phonetic connection to customer name]

The names you're choosing to highlight here are both European in origin, which reads to me as “see, it's not racist because we were making fun of white people!". This is the South Park method of “it's not offensive if we make fun of everyone,” ignoring power structures and historical inequities.

Let's also chat a bit about distractions. You're litigating individual examples here, which is a distraction from what people are upset about. The very fact that you're making fun of names means you're harming people who've had their names made fun of. That's a harm that you can't litigate away with these examples.

It's not a list of, say, primarily Asian names. Out of the 78 names listed on the last version we were able to recover, just 6 names appear to be Asian.

Why did you feel the need to defend yourself here? That's 6 people you've harmed, and these are people who have been dealing with constant racism, xenophobia, and violence by virtue of existing. “We only made fun of 6 Asian people” is not the win you think it is.

So connecting this to the shootings in Atlanta, because the Asian victims of that atrocity had their names misspelled in news reports, is exactly the kind of linkage I'd like us to avoid when we analyze our mistakes together at work

I keep repeating myself here, because maybe it will sink in eventually.

You. Do. Not. Get. To. Decide. That.

It is not our place as white men to decide if our behavior is harmful or connected to a broader system of harm. We have more power than anyone else in this society, so it is incumbent upon us to listen to the people saying we are harming them. As so many folks say to us, “shutting up is free.” I get the irony in me not shutting up right now, but I really need you to know that you're further entrenching white supremacy every time you keep opening your mouth.

Anyway, again, I completely appreciate that this is an incredible sensitive time when it comes to questions of identity, racism, and colonialism

It's a sensitive time, yet you keep putting out these insensitive replies and policies. If you were genuine here, you would not be shutting down the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) council that is so clearly necessary based on these patterns of behavior. You're saying that you care and that you're being sensitive, but your actions do not match your words.

though did not specify which exact attributes they felt this was targeted discrimination against

You just got done explaining to your Asian employees that making fun of their names is not connected to the broader system of violence against them.

They concluded that no discrimination or harassment had occurred, and we shared their findings with the company.

I'm guessing that is in the strictest legal sense, given that they are lawyers. And sure - it's incredibly hard to prove a legal pattern of discrimination or harassment in the United States. That's…not the point. There's a vast area of conduct that's legal, but still shitty. Some examples:

The Best Names List discussion had quickly devolved into employees hurling angry words at each other, and had to be closed by Jason.

The dreaded “angry words” - I'd be angry too if my company were making fun of people's names and then they hired a lawyer to say “no it's actually not discrimination”. Did it really “have to be closed” or were you just uncomfortable? Were you prioritizing the most vulnerable, or were you prioritizing your own comfort? You keep mentioning distractions, but you seem to have created more of a distraction here by shutting down important conversations.

Together with other acrimonious debates and inappropriate discussions with roots in societal politics on our internal communication systems, this formed the context that led to the recently announced changes. After going through repeated, worsening incidents like this, we took a hard look at why we kept doing this, and kept getting the same unproductive, unhealthy results.

Given your prior examples of what you consider “inappropriate,” I'm pretty curious about these discussions. What was inappropriate? You being uncomfortable? People being held accountable for their actions?

“Why do we keep doing this?” signifies some sort of introspection. But that hopefully leads to some substantive change around people's behaviors and norms. What you're doing is restricting people's rights to discuss their working conditions and the impact of their colleagues’ behavior on others. You've left yourselves (you and Jason) solely in charge of deciding what's appropriate or who gets to say what. That's authoritarian and unequivocally worse than whatever you had before.

Demanding that it also has to play out in our shared workspaces isn't going to lead anywhere good, in my opinion.

That's your opinion, which you've just turned into a policy that 60 people now live by for 8 hours a day. I guess your whole shtick is being opinionated. That's why you built an email service without email signatures and thus further marginalized people whose email signatures are important to prove competence. I'm sensing a trend. And the fact that you don't really see it means that you're not listening.

Yet feeling unable to speak up out of fear that they'd have an accusatory label affixed to their person for refusing to accept the predominant framing of the issues presented by other more vocal employees

Lots of big words to say “people were scared to be called assholes.” That's a legitimate fear in a lot of ways. Being opinionated means being wrong sometimes (you're familiar with that, I presume). The natural impulse, especially as someone who's in a relative position of privilege, is to get defensive when someone tells you that you are wrong. Like I mentioned earlier, I'd urge you, and anyone else who's worried about these “accusatory labels”, to sit with that discomfort for a bit. To understand that, for many people, simply existing in a space means that they have those lables “affixed to their person.” And when they speak up about that, they're doing it out of a desire for things to be better. By and large, they're not doing it to troll you or get some internet points.

If you do indeed strive to have a diverse workforce both ideologically and identity wise, you're not going to find unison on all these difficult, contentious issues

The goal isn't unison. It's equity. It's restoring the injustices and imbalances that people like you and me have leveled on others for centuries. And that's going to be difficult. It's going to be contentious. It hurts. But it's important, and it's something that only we can do as the people in power. The status quo is harmful to so, so many people, and trying to maintain that means that we're complicit in that harm.

My belief is that the key to working with other people of different ideological persuasions is to find common cause in the work

This core “list of names” shit is not an ideological persuasion. It's a shitty thing to do, and trying to make it go away by shutting down the conversation is the exact opposite of “finding common cause”. Racism is not an ideological persuasion. Being trans is not an ideological persuasion. Trying to exist as a full, whole, human in the world is not an ideology.

these societal political questions unrelated to work are being moved from company workspaces to private employee channels

You may not intend this, but this is exactly a page out of the union-busting playbook.

Yesterday, we offered everyone at Basecamp an option of a severance package worth up to six months salary for those who've been with the company over three years, and three months salary for those at the company less than that

Ah, there it is. At least you're being honest about it. “If you don't agree with us, you can get out.” At least you're explicitly telling people they're unwelcome, I guess. You know this is going to lead to the monoculture you were just railing (lol) against, right? That's the outcome here. Which means your comfort is preserved, and you and Jason can go on making money and buying saunas and showing off your corner office

I hope that the airing of our dirty laundry, and the shitstorm its caused, can help others answer their own questions better.

It certainly helps a lot of folks answer the “Do I ever want to work at Basecamp” question.

it's no wonder that everyone is extra vulnerable, extra quick to jump to conclusions, extra likely to escalate

Yes, people are tired. People are exhausted. People are beat down. It's your job as a leader to take that opportunity to show compassion and allow space for people to feel their feelings. Shutting that down causes people to lose trust, resent you, and ultimately dislike their work environment. You're framing this the same way pundits and politicians do by using “both sides” logic to draw false equivalence. People getting upset about systemic injustice is not the same thing as people getting their feelings hurt when someone holds them accountable.

But this too shall pass. We've been in business for over twenty years. Been through a myriad of controversies and challenges, and we'll be through this too.

I don't doubt that. People will keep paying you money. The employees you've deemed difficult will leave (some probably already have), and you'll bring in more people willing to “shut up and work,” and your utopian little tech company will meander on. You've made it very clear where you stand, and that the stakes for you are minor. I can't say the same for your employees who are in vulnerable and marginalized positions and who rely on their jobs for their livelihood.

I'm moving onward, indeed - but with them, not with you.