Yes, unfortunately we’re going to talk about Basecamp.
At this point, we imagine you’re either asking ‘what are they talking about’ or doing an epic eyeroll which pleads ‘not more of this’.
For the blissfully unaware, this week Jason Fried, founder of workplace/project management software provider Basecamp, published a blog post outlining various changes to the company’s operations. These included discouraging political discussions at work, removing what he described as bureaucratic committees (a DEI effort was singled out in particular), and stopping 360 performance reviews.
After an investigation by journalist Casey Newton, it subsequently emerged that the announcement was in reaction to several weeks of discussions about a list kept by the company of ‘funny’ customer names, some examples of which seemed inappropriate and even racist.
As the debate progressed, one employee pointed out that the way we treat names is impactful, and dehumanization which begins with small actions like this can culminate in events like the recent Atlanta shootings. David Heinemeier Hansson, Basecamp’s other founder, disagreed with this framing in a message visible to the entire company. Two other employees then filed HR complaints against Hansson for his reaction. As Newton notes with his tongue firmly in his cheek, ‘HR declined to take action against the company co-founder).
Less than two weeks after all this, Fried announced the changes discouraging political discussion and other activities deemed detrimental to Basecamp's work. (Hansson has since released further details of the message he published to the company, and the HR complaints).
Needless to say, it did not go well.
The reaction isn’t surprising. Fried’s post is a tour-de-force of lazy management practices, flagrant privilege and self-centred posturing, shot through with a lack of self-awareness and a heavy dose of high school politics.
(But apart from that, it’s not bad).
Perhaps the most telling reactions are those of various Basecamp employees who were clearly upset by the changes.
The hosts of the company’s podcast about ‘the better way to work and run your business’ even put the show on indefinite hiatus in a two minute episode where they struggled to articulate their discomfort, particularly with the hypocrisy of their show tagline.
If you're wondering whether this is likely to have an impact on retention at the company, here's Newton again:
"Based on my conversations over the past day, I expect Basecamp’s workforce to shrink meaningfully as a result."
This in a company of only 58 people.
So beyond gawping at the car crash, what can we learn from this?
Despite our many thoughts on this topic, we thought very hard about not writing about this story. Our focus is on helping managers get to grips with the fundamentals of the role, and hopefully that doesn’t include telling your team that ‘the martyrs go hand in hand into the arena; they are crucified alone’ (yes, that happened).
But often when we ask people how they learned to be a manager, they speak about their own experiences of being managed. Both the good managers they’ve been inspired by, and the bad ones that made them feel a certain way that they vowed never to inflict on their teams.
So we’d really recommend reading the Basecamp post (and Newton’s reporting and Hansson’s response if you have time) and taking stock of the things that make you cringe and why. Both in terms of the actions the Basecamp leadership are taking, but also how they’re communicating it. Put yourself in the shoes of employees reading the post but also the leaders faced with the situation. How would you have handled it?
Your instincts will probably point you to valuable lessons for what not to do in future. If you’re unsure and/or want to verify your takeaways, perhaps use it as a starting point for discussion with a peer manager, or you can always talk to us.