Society inside companies

Last week the small but influential software company, Basecamp, made some internal policy changes. You can read their (much-amended) public announcement, as well as some well-informed background and a follow-up. There were six changes listed, but the one that got the most attention was “No more societal and political discussions on our company Basecamp account”. Four days later “roughly a third of the company’s 57 employees” had chosen to leave.

Clearly the changes were not popular. And while each leaver’s reasons will be their own, it’s not hard to imagine that the most publicly discussed change was one of the biggest influences.

In his public announcement co-founder Jason Fried said “we treat our company as a product”, and when a beloved product makes sudden changes it’s not unusual to see many users flee, because change is unsettling, and it forces people to re-evaluate their affiliation. It seems that model of company-as-product works for undesirable outcomes as well as desirable ones.

This is also the flipside of what I wrote a few weeks ago about companies taking a stand against external political decisions. Back then I said that in general companies do want their employees to be able to live decent lives, and they want to shape the company accordingly. They are shaping their part of society, the part that lies inside the company’s boundaries. The flipside is what’s happening here, that the employees also want to shape that part of society—their employer, the company—for the best. That sometimes means debating issues when the answers are not obvious to everyone involved. Not everyone will care about that, of course; some people are happy to live the bulk of their lives outside the company. But for some, life inside the company is a big part of their lives.

By taking away the ability to discuss social issues Basecamp seems to have taken from many employees their ability to shape the bit of society that lies inside the company’s boundaries. It’s a loss for those employees, and it’s a shame for Basecamp that many of them chose, therefore, to spend their working lives elsewhere.

Photo by Russell James Smith