It’s Simple Until It’s Not

What we can learn from basecamp about diversity, power, tech bros and the revolution that is coming to a workplace near you.

by Naomi Ryland, tbd*, May 26, 2021
Rainbow Colored Crosswalk

Header: Greg Rosenke via Unsplash

to belonging* is our next step in rethinking the topic of anti-discrimination at work. It is an attempt to move away from the discourse of diversity and inclusion towards authentic and lived belonging of all marginalized people. The goal is radical systemic change in the impact sector, from "power over" and "power for" to "power with."  This series is made possible by the Open Society Foundations

Several weeks ago, one of Silicon Valley’s most influential companies imploded in a controversy that can teach us a lot about changes (aka revolutions) that are coming to all of our companies and workplaces, and how (not) to handle them.

Ok, who is Basecamp and what the hell happened?

Basecamp is a 20 year old software company with a customer base of over 16 million, a valuation of somewhere around 100 billion dollars (as of 2019) and a small but productive team of 57, as of last week that is. Their small number of employees might trigger many a business owner to question their legitimacy, but this is precisely what has made them so special. They build productivity software and as such have built their brand, including several hugely acclaimed business books (one of which is a NYT Bestseller), on a solid foundation of keeping things simple, keeping things small and still being wildly profitable. “It’s simple until you make it complicated” is one of their catchphrases. In the books by the two founders and in their prolific socially liberal and ostensibly progressive social media posts, they advocate for radical things like quality over innovation, sustainable growth over quick exits and agile, and remote teams over shiny big offices. Much of what they stand for has resonated strongly with the more progressive wing of the startup and business world, who believe that a more equitable startup and business world is possible, who believe in stakeholder capitalism over shareholder capitalism and who are pushing for widespread transformation to create a more people-centric work culture. 

And so it came as a jaw-dropping great shock to read the public statement that one of the founders, Jason Fried, posted on his blog last month. Fried refers at the beginning of the article to the complications inherent in building a company in which human beings work: “We all want different somethings. Some slightly different, some substantially.” So far, so obvious. The conclusion that he draws, however, is not so obvious: “Companies, however, must settle the collective difference, pick a point, and navigate towards somewhere, lest they get stuck circling nowhere.” He goes on to describe the point, or points, towards which basecamp will now be navigating, including the following radical measures: “No more societal and political discussions on our company Basecamp account”,“No more committees”, “No more lingering or dwelling on past decisions”, “No more 360 reviews”.

They are the founders, they can do what they like! Right?

So they’ve banned political and societal issues on the Basecamp account. So what?  Well, it takes on a new significance when you realise that they are a completely remote company and so that means they are not allowed to talk about political and societal issues anywhere. And it leaves an even bitterer taste in the mouth, when you learn that this decision was prompted by acrimonious internal discussions about the (lack of) diversity and evident bias amongst team members and founders. 

“No committees”? Couldn’t that be a good thing? Well not when you discover that the decision followed the recent formation of a Diversity and Inclusion committee, which 20 employees had volunteered to co-create. 

“No more lingering or dwelling on past decisions”. Sounds like a good idea right? Well, not so much once you put it into the context of internal discussions about previous racially offensive behaviour by team members including making a list of customers’ “funny” names. 

“And cutting 360* feedback? What has that got to do with anything?” Well, the way Fried explains this decision is by suggesting that staff are too nice to each other, so the feedback is meaningless. If that were really the case, but they actually saw the value in meaningful feedback, they could just invest in training their staff in how to give good feedback. In this context it just sounds like a quickfire way for the people at the top to reduce channels for receiving criticism and feedback from those below. 

The time for open discourse, honest feedback and diversity of opinion at basecamp is clearly over. 


That is not, however, how Jason and David see it: “Employees are free to take up whatever cause they want, support whatever movements they'd like, and speak out on whatever horrible injustices are being perpetrated on this group or that (and, unfortunately, there are far too many to choose from). But that's their business, not ours. We're in the business of making software, and a few tangential things that touch that edge. We're responsible for ourselves. That's more than enough for us.” 

One can only imagine that this does sound perfectly reasonable to a privileged, cis, hetero, white male business owner, who has never experienced discrimination directly. After all, these “issues” and “injustices” are what happen to other people, they don’t have anything to do with you personally and they certainly don’t have a place at work. The picture looks very different, however, for many women, Black, Asian, disabled and transgender people, many of whom are confronted with the consequences of these “horrible injustices” in small, large, subtle and blindingly obvious ways everywhere they go, and most of all at work. For these people it is not a choice to “take up a cause” but rather an imperative to staying afloat, if not staying alive. 

But they are just figuring things out. I mean, it’s not like there is decades of research on diversity out there. Oh wait, there is. 

Fried and Hansson don’t see it that way, and according to global consulting group BCG, that’s not unusual: “When asked if they see obstacles to diversity and inclusion at their company, more than a third of diverse employees said yes. Half of all diverse employees stated that they see bias as part of their day-to-day experience at work. Half said that they don’t believe that their companies have the right mechanisms in place to ensure that major decisions (such as who receives promotions and stretch assignments) are free from bias. By contrast, white heterosexual males, who tend to dominate the leadership ranks, are significantly more likely than employees in diverse groups to say that the day-to-day experience and major decisions are free of bias.” The data shows that most company leaders—primarily white, heterosexual males—still underestimate the challenges diverse employees face. These leaders control budgets and decide which diversity programs to pursue. If they lack a clear understanding of the problem, they can’t design effective solutions.

Ok, but it’s still their company. They can do what they like, right? Maybe they are just not that interested in diversity and didn’t want to create a diverse company anyway? Nope. In 2018 Fried wrote an article in about his and Hansson’s concerted efforts to increase the diversity of their company. “Basecamp is approaching its 18th year in business” he wrote, “and for most of those years we've been mostly male and mostly white. We're not proud of that. I have nothing against white guys, but white guys don't reflect the world at large or our customer base.” And, like most companies at the beginning of their diversity journey, they started with their recruitment process. “One of the first things we concluded was that we needed to write our job ads differently.” He went on to describe their relative success in increasing the proportion of women in the company to 35% and a somewhat more vague acknowledgement that “more minority groups are represented”. “The company feels friendlier, more inclusive, more welcoming” he gushed. So they do want a more diverse company, for both business and ethical reasons and they also love the benefits it brings (when these benefits are tangible to them personally). 

In fact they don’t feel like their new policies are contradictory to their desire for a more diverse workplace. Quite the opposite. In the most recent blogpost by Hansson on the matter he again explicitly repeats that diversity is his and Fried’s goal: “Which gets to the root of the dilemma. 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. […] So if that is something you want, I continue to believe that a diverse workforce _should_ be something that you want, you have to consider what guardrails to put on the internal discourse. My belief is that the key to working with other people of different ideological persuasions is to find common cause in the work, in the relations with customers, in the good we can do in the industry.” As we have already established, however, white, heterosexual male leaders rarely have a good intuitive understanding of what is required for a diverse culture as they are completely blind to many of the issues at hand. As such it is irresponsible (and just plain wrong) of Hansson and Fried to base their diversity policy on their “beliefs” rather than looking into the rigorous research and information that is already out there. And that research and thought-leadership is not hard to find. 

A 2020 article by two Harvard professors in HBR about the challenges and opportunities of diversity at work reads as if they had based their research on basecamp itself. They did not, of course, but it shows just how typical this scenario is for all companies who embark on a process of diversifying their organisations. The professors emphasise how difficult and messy building diverse organisations really is:
“Still another flaw in the familiar business case for diversity is the notion that a diverse team will have richer discussions and a better decision-making process simply because it is diverse. Having people from various identity groups “at the table” is no guarantee that anything will get better; in fact, research shows that things often get worse, because increasing diversity can increase tensions and conflict. Under the right organizational conditions, though, employees can turn cultural differences into assets for achieving team goals.” 

Diversity experts know that what happens at basecamp is entirely normal, that the process of creating true diversity is difficult but not impossible, and they also know how to deal with the situation in a way that doesn’t involve (spoiler alert) a third of your team quitting and alienating a big chunk of your customer base:
“What we’ve learned […] is that embracing a learning orientation toward diversity turns out to be quite difficult. To make real progress, people—and the organizational cultures they inhabit—must change. But instead of doing the hard work involved, companies have generally stuck with easier, more limited approaches that don’t alter the status quo.Companies will not reap benefits from diversity unless they build a culture that insists on equality. Treating differences as a source of knowledge and connection lays the groundwork for such a culture. But as part of that process, firms may have to make financial investments that they won’t recoup, at least in the short run, and more will be required of top leaders, managers, and rank-and-file employees alike. Everyone will have to learn how to actively listen to others’ perspectives, have difficult conversations, refrain from blame and judgment, and solicit feedback about how their behaviors and company practices might be impeding the push for a culture that supports learning, equality, and mutual respect.” 

Moreover, they add, there has to be a change in power structures, and they have been trying to tell organisations this since 1996: 
“Being genuinely valued and respected involves more than just feeling included. It involves having the power to help set the agenda, influence what—and how—work is done, have one’s needs and interests taken into account, and have one’s contributions recognized and rewarded with further opportunities to contribute and advance. Undertaking this shift in power is what the learning-and-effectiveness companies we wrote about in 1996 were doing, and it’s what enabled them to tap diversity’s true benefits.” 

The key to success when it comes to building diverse organisations is not to force hegemony and homogeneity, as Hansson assumes, but rather create structures, processes and culture that celebrate difference, enable inclusion and reach a point of belonging, whereby previously marginalized voices actually get to make decisions, even and especially when this might negatively impact on the previously powerful and privileged. Acknowledging and challenging existing power structures is essential to building a diverse company. 

“Who's responsible for these changes? David and I are. Who made the changes? David and I did”.

Fried and Hansson made their ignorance of diversity best-practice and their disinterest in the views and feelings of their newly diverse team crystal clear a couple of days later in a follow-up blog post, this time from Hansson. In this piece Hansson responded to the criticism from staff and social media not by taking a moment to listen and reflect but rather by doubling down: “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.”  In the meantime it has been reported that over 20 of 57 employees have publicly announced their resignation or their intention to do so. Hansson and Fried had no idea this was coming. They had completely misread the room. And their actions prompted what can only be described as a revolution. 

Suddenly the scales fell from the employees’ eyes. It turns out that many of these progressive and hugely popular business books; much of this business wisdom about building employee-centric, sustainable companies, has been written with one group of people in mind: white cishetero males, and others who conform to their view of the world. So it all works out great, until you are not a team of all white cis males anymore. Companies like this only want diversity as long as it doesn’t actually change anything. As long as they can keep peddling their white, male agenda, which works for them, keeps them comfortable and above all keeps them profitable. Because that, we realize, was the real bottom line all along. They only really care about their employees as long as their employees’ wellbeing is in stark correlation with the company’s profitability and with their own values. As soon as there is a risk of divergence, the employee’s wellbeing is suddenly not so important anymore, it’s the company’s profitability and the founders’ (or in investor-funded companies, shareholders’) comfort and “beliefs” that win out. And this will always be the case as long as New Work, people centric management, and other progressive values and strategies are seen as a means to an end; as a means to profitability, and not as an end in themselves. If leaders only build diverse teams, recruit more women into leadership positions, promote BIPOC etc in order to make themselves more money or to make themselves feel better, and not because it is a moral and ethical imperative, then as soon as it doesn’t make them more money, or make them feel better, they drop the diversity and try to return to their old ways. Only now we know that the time has passed where employees will just take that kind of leadership failure lying down. 

So, what have we learned (and let’s say it loud for the people at the back)? If diversity doesn’t also go hand in hand with belonging, that is to say a reconfiguring of existing power structures, then white, hetero, able-bodied people, and men in particular, will continue to make the rules. And sooner or later everybody else will, well, quit… or should I say, start a revolution.