Working for social justice isn’t a ‘distraction’ for mission-focused companies

In case you missed it: On Monday, Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong wrote a company blog post titled “Coinbase is a mission focused company” which drew both praise and critique that has continued throughout the week. Personally, I wasn’t terribly impressed.

I limited my reaction on Twitter to one retweet, a couple of replies and some likes. But on Tuesday, a journalist asked if I had any comment to contribute to a piece she’s writing on the matter, so I tried to articulate a comment in one or two lines. The next thousand-ish words is what I ended up with.

This is such a sensitive, nuanced and personal topic, and I wouldn’t want to be irresponsible by making a quick off-handed remark or not taking enough into consideration.

However, I think it’s so important, it’d be irresponsible not to say something when asked.

I’d like to think I understood the intent — that Brian wants to ensure that Coinbase is inclusive of people who hold different views than what’s assumed to be progressive in the tech sector (or elsewhere) and avoid creating a workplace that is divided and too “distracted” (his word) by political causes or social activism.

However, what he’s really only done is highlight his tremendous position of privilege. Privilege doesn’t mean that he hasn’t struggled or hasn’t worked hard at being CEO of his company or in life. It simply means he thinks social activism can be a “distraction.” It means he thinks it’s a distraction to think about human rights and whether what’s happening around us is just or not.

It means he doesn’t wake up worrying about how institutional racism or systemic oppression might affect him. It means he doesn’t relate to the feeling that he could be the next driver to be unjustifiably stopped and searched, asked to get out of his car (or worse) for a broken taillight or verbally ridiculed or assaulted for someone else’s assumptions about his sexual orientation. It means he doesn’t think the rise of white supremacy in America is going to affect or diminish his ability to “stay focused” on his company’s mission. It means he doesn’t have to go to work wondering if he’ll be pushed aside, undermined or spoken over by a male colleague.

Brian’s statement made me think back to conversations I had with some friends over the summer who said they weren’t going to watch “every single video” of police brutality in the U.S. relating to the Black Lives Matter protests. It’s possible that I was watching too much because it was only increasing my frustration and feelings of powerlessness to help or change things, but I also realized that my friends admitting that they’d stopped watching each new video was a luxury and a privilege for them.

They didn’t have to watch them — no one is required to — but they were able to switch off because the injustice and inequity of it all doesn’t burn in their minds. It doesn’t affect them personally. It doesn’t impact how they walk down the street or conduct themselves around law enforcement. They have the privilege of not ever imagining or worrying if the victims of police brutality happened to be their family or close friends or even people they might know.

Brian Armstrong’s call to not engage in political discourse via his platform and his position as a leader is a privilege whilst others are compelled out of concern and fear to speak up for themselves, others, and those who have softer or even no voices.

In the memo, he takes time to reiterate the fact that the company will “focus on the things that help us achieve our mission,” including sourcing job candidates from underrepresented backgrounds, reducing unconscious bias and fostering an environment where everyone is welcome regardless of background, sexual orientation, race, gender, age, etc. While I‘m glad to see him recognize these areas of focus, immediately after that section he goes on to say that Coinbase won’t engage on “broader societal issues” or advocacy for political causes. From where does he think the first set of principles emerged?!?

It seems outlandish to have to establish this, but it wasn’t always the case that sexual orientation, race, gender or age were awarded equal treatment in employment law. It was in my lifetime that women could be fired from work for being pregnant. It is precisely engaging in “broader societal issues” that brought about those points of legal fairness and equality — and those are incredibly vulnerable right now. How dare he say he’s willing to embrace and stand for what’s been established so far, but that there’s no reason to engage any further? What that tells me is that as far as he’s concerned, the debates and activism to date have achieved enough and the rest, now, is distraction.

That. Is. Privilege.

Obviously, I know Coinbase is Brian’s company, and therefore it’s fully his prerogative to lay out the “mission” and rules as he sees fit. But what bothers me is that he and others who are feeling emboldened to say they agree or even commend him for “being brave” enough for saying so won’t realize the extent of their privilege and may inadvertently walk back so much recent progress and positive dialogue in the tech sector and business more broadly. We’ve seen so much evidence in recent years that consumers and purchasing power gravitate toward brands and companies that articulate what they stand for.

No longer is it enough for brands to be likable or just upbeat. Their silence on social injustices is deafening. Their association with individuals who either contribute to or enable racism or oppression of people and groups is enough for customers to think twice about using them. Their public support of activism and human rights either in merchandise or TV advertisements drives up their stock price. As more and more products and services are increasingly commoditized, consumers have sought to align themselves with brands and products that reflect their ethos.

It was a free pass for too long for businesses and their leaders to say that they didn’t wade into politics. In recent years, for example, because of the U.K.-EU Brexit referendum, the 2016 U.S. presidential election, or other occasions, companies and brand values have been drawn out and exposed for good or bad. It would be a shame for consumers and all stakeholders to lose that trend.

I hope that investor shareholders and employees of companies where leaders might be asserting similar views of not wanting to get “distracted” by social action will help to demonstrate just how much impact can be achieved by dialogue and action.

People do their best work and form championship teams when they feel good about supporting their teammates and colleagues, not when they remain silent.