The realities of politics in the workplace - an expert says firms can't opt out

ALSO: the Zoom boss is done with chain Zooming / learn from the top cultures

Last week a mini drama played out that has echoes of a bigger workplace trends that we’re in the midst of right now. While it was in the US the stories that follow have a decidedly international implication, especially as we’re starting to see workplace discourse become a battlefront in companies around the world.

On Thursday the CEO of Washingtonian Media, Cathy Merrill, took to the (sadly paywalled) pages of The Washington Post to express that she was ’concerned about the unfortunately common office worker who wants to continue working at home and just go into the office on occasion’.

This leadership opinion is becoming increasingly apparent, in general CEOs just prefer their employees being in the office where they can see them. (I’ve also covered how male dominated firms lean towards full-time office cultures). Merrill’s piece was largely hearsay, citing fellow CEOs and, randomly, a son’s friend who was going to work in investment banking. The article explained that if remote work persisted, in many ways firms might be better off getting contractors, because a lot of a real employee’s job is done just by being around in the office. ‘If the employee is rarely around to participate in those extras, management has a strong incentive to change their status to “contractor.”’

The drama really began to start popping with the way Merrill chose to sign off, ‘The biggest benefit for workers may be simple job security. Remember something every manager knows: The hardest people to let go are the ones you know.’

And so began a day of staff walkouts and protests at her firm. Dozens of employees took to social media to tweet an identical message to her.

One photo editor, Lauren Bulbin, told the Washington Post she found the threat to reclassify workers as contractors as ‘truly terrifying.’ Merrill spent the next 24 hours in damage limitation mode regretting that she had chased the glory of a WashPo byline.

The saga comes a week after pretty explosive Basecamp protests. The Basecamp story will take up the next paragraph but the TL;DR is tech bros try to ban politics for an easier life, a third of the firm quit in protest.

Basecamp is a tech firm that make communication products, like project boards and the email substitute, Hey. Over the course of the last ten years the leaders of the tiny firm, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson have punched above their weight by penning several books about workplace culture. The ethos of books like ‘It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work’ is that even though you’ve not solved your workplace culture, we’ve solved our workplace culture. The latest furore kicked off when Fried wrote a public blogpost titled ‘Changes at Basecamp’. The post (which has been edited several times since) included pronouncements like ‘No more societal and political discussions on our company Basecamp account’ (where the Basecamp account is like a cross between an internal version of Slack and a message board), it came with a reminder, ‘We are not a social impact company.’ Journalist Casey Newton started to dig a little deeper in what was going on at the firm, he found that employees said that politics wasn’t actually taking up a lot of airtime, but there were some elements of the firm’s culture that made new starters cringe. One such quirk was a list of ‘funny names’ that some sales staff kept that seemed to be thinly vailed mockery of African and Asian people they’d encountered. Over the last few months, responding to the founders’ public espousal of themes of inclusion, employees had expressed an interest in improving the company’s diversity. It was a positive move leading to 20 of the firm’s 58 employees coming forward offering to look at things like the recruitment process. It was in the midst of this that the restrictive blogpost arrived. To those inside the company it seemed like an excessive way for the bosses to silence any discussion that didn’t originate from them. Within a week a third of the company had taken the founders up on an offer to leave.

Hang on, this is interesting. Last year, I was really taken (and convinced) with reading The Coddling of the American Mind by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff. In their beautifully argued book the authors made out that modern day university students were somehow more feeble than those who came before them, because they had been ‘coddled’ in their childhood. They bemoan that young kids aren’t allowed to play out these days and it means by extrapolation that they can’t handle unpredictable conflict, ultimately meaning they’re too sensitive to political discourse at college. In a thoroughly enjoyable interview I heard with Haidt last week he explained ‘if I was writing the book today I’d have to include work’. These are the stories that Haidt would surely include. They would attempt to support his theory that workers now are more fragile than those who came before them. To be clear: this is not what is happening here.

There was similar to a situation at Coinbase last year, there the CEO ordered that employees were no longer able to talk politics at work. Back in Chicago, one Basecamper explained what they believed had happened, ‘There's always been this kind of unwritten rule at Basecamp that the company basically exists for David and Jason's enjoyment. At the end of the day, they are not interested in seeing things in their work timeline that make them uncomfortable, or distracts them from what they're interested in. And this is the culmination of that.’

To understand this I chatted to Megan Reitz, Megan is Professor of Leadership and Dialogue at Ashridge Executive Education – part of Hult International Business School. She’s written extensively on workplace politics, she told me these stories are just a sign of a growing trend of employees feeling ‘more willing to speak up on social and environmental issues in organisations’, effectively social media has enabled workers to understand that they collectively share opinions and they feel permitted to discuss them in response to their firms’ pronouncements.

Reitz believes that increasingly shareholders are expecting firms to make comments about ESG (Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance) issues like Black Lives Matter, or the Climate Emergency. As a consequence employees - who incidentally have more power in key technical roles because of skills scarcity - are asking their employers to deliver when it comes to those pronouncements. It’s Reitz’s view that firms can’t choose to make public comments on social issues and then proscribe that discussion internally.

Reitz believes this is a reality of the workplaces of the future, banning politics is in itself a political decision. ‘You can’t opt out, when you go into it what on earth counts as political and not political. How on earth do you draw the line?’ This resonates with one Basecamper who told Casey Newton about the realities of not talking politics, ‘How do you talk about raising kids without talking about society? As soon as I bring up public schools, then it’s already political.’

Reitz says a CEO might decide that an issue is peripheral to work, while for their teams it can be about the neighbourhoods they go home to, their likelihood of being stopped by the police, the sirens they are kept awake by. Ultimately by a boss banning discussion of societal issues it means they’re been instructed not to share the realities of their lives. Gratingly, like with Basecamp, these prohibitions can be alongside their bosses making public comments about such issues. For Reitz these double standard will lead to these rules imploding, for as much as we might seek the simplicity of bans, the truth is that we need to embrace the messy complexity of real life. ‘It doesn’t mean that [CEOs] need to solve these issues! They can’t! Because they don’t know how to but they need to come in with their ears open… with empathy to their employees’ experience.’

Any attempt to ban workplace discussions will just demonstrate that like Cathy Merrill, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, some CEOs are just out of touch with the modern world. Bosses need to embrace messiness because workplace discourse has changed for good.

(See below for my interview with Megan Reitz)

I did a talk for Google about how workplace culture is being rebuilt.

More lessons from the future

Following the data I released two weeks ago about male dominated firms adopting less flexible working practices, my anonymous collaborator in Melbourne has been in touch with some additional lessons about plotting a return to the office. Here’s their suggestions:

Don’t ask staff if you’re not going to listen. A colleagues wife works for [an insurance firm] Apparently they surveyed staff about their return to office preferences, staff voted overwhelmingly for 2-3 days, so management decided the answer was 5 days. (I’ve heard similar scenarios from individual teams from a variety of organisations). This quote sums it up beautifully; ‘Don’t confuse leadership with control. Leaders listen’.

Think about where to focus your leadership efforts - [One contractor demanded that all subcontractor follow their 3 day in office working policy], the good news is that it’s largely been ignored. Think carefully before wasting leadership time, resources and goodwill trying to convince your team that they enjoy commuting and the office is as productive as home. No wonder wry cynicism is the consistent, pervading culture of business life!

Selective hearing is obvious

Example 1) Last week I attended an industry lunch. All 3 panellists were women and there was lots of discussion about how WFH offers communities the opportunities they’ve been trying to create for years: pulling Melbourne’s economic wealth from the centre, where it’s been overly concentrated (like your fried to scrambled egg analogy). There was one panellist comment about how the office is a useful learning environment. The post-lunch conversation of our mostly male table focused on that point - how grads have missed development opportunities and how there’s been great learning conversations in the office since returning. Selective hearing in action, from the men who demanded our return 3 weeks ago. 

Example 2) Last year there was a meeting thanking staff for meeting tough construction deadlines during the shift to WFH. They also mentioned concrete delivery to site was more reliable with less commuter traffic around. When asked whether WFH had impacted the project negatively, our leader replied ‘the jury’s out’. What he meant by that is ‘There is plenty of evidence that WFH has had positive impact but I’ll keep ignoring that until I see some evidence that it’s been bad.’

Staff value flexibility, and will move (hopefully) A woman we’ve been trying to recruit wasn’t interested in joining us last year. She’s now up for an interview as she has two young children and her organisation are demanding her back 5 days a week.

As I’ve said before, remote working is a diversity and inclusion issue.

Does political discourse have a place in the workplace? I’ve already mentioned that today’s podcast is a truly dazzling discussion with Megan Reitz. I got in touch with Megan when I saw her articles about Basecamp, Coinbase and political activism at work.

Along the way we discuss Jonathan Haidt and whether Gen Z’s are softer than previous generations. I reference a discussion between Jonathan Haidt and the very first guest of the podcast Richard Reeves. Haidt’s book The Coddling of the American Mind is an intoxicating spell. It tells you really clearly why young people are softer now than previous generations (and that argument would be all the better if it were actually true).

Firstly, in depth coverage of the specifics of the Basecamp issue.

Then, Megan’s articles: what is your response to employee activism? Part two

Why employee activism needs to feature in your HR strategy

Listen: Apple / Spotify / website

A great response to last week’s podcast on Amazon. If you are interested in understanding the good and bad of other organisations’ culture then there are a few episodes to explore here:

Artist and humorist Mr Bingo created some free, subversive Zoom backgrounds for your team to use.