What the ‘nonpolitical’ startup leader teaches us about company culture

All eyes have recently been on Basecamp, which lost about a third of its workforce at the end of last month after banning “societal and political discussions” at work. Late last year, Coinbase was embroiled in a similar controversy after its CEO declared that political activism at work is a distraction, leading to a smaller but still significant employee exodus.

Before that, controversies erupted at Google, Facebook and other prominent tech firms, leading to virtual employee walkouts and work stoppages. We continue to see headlines that highlight tech company employee revolts over management edicts or perceived policy failures.

These company meltdowns reflect a societal change, and those in the startup community ought to take notice. The strife may be attributable to changing generational expectations in some cases, or an excess of “tech bro” culture in others, but the reality is that things have changed.

“Don’t discuss politics at work” used to be a standard expectation. But employee expectations have shifted, and leaders have to recognize and respond to that.

A generation ago, it was standard policy to keep politics out of work. Today, it’s virtually impossible to separate the political from the personal, and employees are encouraged to bring their whole selves to work, which includes their backgrounds and belief systems.

Political and societal topics impact the everyday lives of employees and the world is more connected than ever. Startup leaders shouldn’t declare a political void — especially if they’re striving for a diverse and inclusive workforce. We’ve seen what happens when we don’t discuss these issues — systemic racism and workplace discrimination are allowed to go unchecked.

I’m the CEO and founder of a growing tech company, and also served as an HR executive at several Fortune 500 companies, which means I’ve seen all sides of the issues at play here.

That gives me some insight on the cultural problems gripping many tech businesses — and some thoughts on solutions. While companies have every right to create rules and policies on employee conduct and internal use of technology, leaders get better results when they approach these issues intentionally and transparently. As we’ve seen with Basecamp and others, banning political activities and discussions outright can result in unintended consequences.

How to change policies without all the drama

It’s impossible to know exactly what caused some of the recent tech company exoduses unless you were there. But most of us have experienced toxic workplace cultures, and having studied the issue extensively as an HR professional and then as a founder, my educated guess is that the recent employee actions that attracted negative media attention are symptoms of a situation that has been simmering for a long time.

If you’re a startup leader who wants to avoid similar controversies, how can you create or change policies without all the drama? Here are some tips to consider:

  • Look in the mirror and analyze culture. People who found successful companies build a culture whether they consciously set out to do that or not. One explanation for cultural growing pains at startups is that many companies unconsciously create a monoculture populated by employees of similar backgrounds, skill sets, attitudes and life experiences. As the company grows, you bring in people with different backgrounds and perspectives to join the group and strengthen the business. But it’s important to remember that company culture and policies need to evolve and mature as the organization grows as well, or conflict will inevitably arise. Leaders can avoid that by being thoughtful about every aspect of the policies they create and adjusting the culture to support all employees, not just those who started on Day One.
  • Get help as your company scales. CEOs set the tone, and for an early-stage startup, policies tend to be less formal and arise directly from company values. But as the organization matures, you may need to codify practices, such as how you handle time off, parental leave and pay structures. Just as you’d turn to the board for financial advice, it’s best to turn to HR and employee relations experts for workplace guidance. Get counsel from HR on how to avoid unintended consequences and communicate changes appropriately. Depending on what kind of policies you’re putting in place, it might also be a good idea to get input from employees.
  • Use employee feedback to understand impact. It’s important to understand what’s going on in your organization before you make policy changes and take other actions that shape the company culture. Collecting employee feedback through surveys and open discussions will allow you to gain visibility into employee priorities and concerns and proceed with greater transparency and decisiveness. Consulting employees before making changes, and even after a policy change, will help you build trust and see if adjustments are needed. Some decisions must be made without staff input; workplaces are not democratic. If possible, try to understand where employees stand so you can better anticipate the impact. One caveat is to not take silence as approval. Just because employees stay after a controversial policy change doesn’t mean they are necessarily OK with it. Many startups put employees in golden handcuffs with benefits or stock options so attractive they “put up with it” for the future payoff. Anonymous surveys will help you understand the sentiment.
  • Don’t capitalize on employee policies for press: It’s not unusual for tech company leaders to publicly issue policy changes to create controversy. Just recently, Coinbase announced a new compensation policy that eliminates negotiations, a decision that is attracting scrutiny. Generally speaking, this practice isn’t necessarily a bad thing; some leaders have used their platforms to change calcified industry standards for the better. But leaders owe it to their teams to be judicious about publicly announcing new policies that affect staff. Employees shouldn’t be used as a pawn to garner press coverage. Employees want changes and programs that are driven by authenticity and what is right for the company, not changes spurred by the news of the week. With Basecamp, the company created an employee-run DEI committee when it was the “thing to do,” but the CEO disbanded it as soon as it became uncomfortable. This type of performative employee support is a surefire way to deteriorate employee confidence and morale. Be thoughtful about decisions and be prepared to stick through it even if challenges arise.

Addressing systemic problems requires a systemic approach

“Don’t discuss politics at work” used to be a standard expectation. But employee expectations have shifted, and leaders have to recognize and respond to that. There is more value to be gleaned from encouraging employees to fully be themselves at work, which helps create an inclusive environment, but it’s also important to know you can’t drop these commitments the minute they become inconvenient.

While startup founders play a leading role, it is also on employees and everyone within the startup community to call out bias or inappropriate behaviors in the workforce and at the leadership level. The reality is that most employees at startups are highly skilled in a job market that values technical talent, putting them in a privileged position to take a risk, speak up or just leave when an organization’s culture is toxic or discriminatory. Their voice and actions will speak volumes for millions of workers who don’t have the ability to walk out the door and risk losing their livelihood — and their next paycheck.

The good news is that several Basecamp employees tried to make a change by suggesting a group focused on diversity. When that effort was shut down, they used their feet to send a message. To drive change, those in positions of privilege and power mustn’t stay silent as bystanders — they have to take a stand for others who aren’t in the position to do so themselves. If all of us harness our privilege to support others who are more vulnerable, we will inevitably create more equitable, welcoming workplaces for everyone.

The turmoil some tech companies are experiencing really comes down to culture and ego. We need to recognize that the old-school “no politics” rule led to situations where systemic racism, sexism and other forms of bigotry festered unchecked. We have an obligation to do better.

Company leaders who acknowledge the direct impact politics can have on employees, engage in open discussions with staff and approach policy changes in a way that reflects the organization’s core values can thrive, even in a divisive political climate.