More than one-third of employees at popular software firm Basecamp abruptly quit last week following a tense Zoom call during which company leadership explained its decision to prohibit political discussions on the company platform.
The tipping point happened when one company executive dared to say we don't live in a "white supremacist culture," according to the Verge.
What allegedly started as a controversy over a long-standing company practice of maintaining a list of "funny" customer names turned into a woke cultural reckoning ending in tears and resignations.
Some employees had reportedly taken issue with the decade-old list amid an ongoing national conversation around racial justice, even going so far as arguing that the list — which included names of American or European origin as well as Asian or African — somehow laid the groundwork for racially motivated violence.
Internal conversation around the list reportedly got so out of hand that Basecamp CEO Jason Fried and his co-founder, David Heinemeier Hansson, decided to close the thread and disband a supplemental employee-led diversity, equity, and inclusion committee.
In an announcement posted last week, Fried relayed that while employees were still free to communicate about political and cultural issues, "it can't happen where the work happens anymore." He added that at-work discussion of "politics, advocacy, or society at large" had become "a major distraction" that is "not healthy," especially given that sensitivities are at an unprecedented high.
Nonetheless, following Fried's post, tensions spiked, prompting Fried and Hansson to host a Zoom meeting to discuss the changes with employees face to face. During the meeting, employees "pressed the founders on the policy changes" for more than two hours, the Verge reported, based on conversations with six employees present at the meeting.
The kicker came roughly 90 minutes in when Basecamp's head of strategy, Ryan Singer, an 18-year veteran of the company, raised his hand to question the claims being made by some employees.
"I strongly disagree we live in a white supremacist culture," Singer reportedly said. "I don't believe in a lot of the framing around implicit bias. I think a lot of this is actually racist.
"Very often, if you express a dissenting view, you get called a Nazi ... I have not felt this is open territory for discussion. If we were to try to get into it as a group discussion, it would be very painful and divisive," he continued.
Those comments allegedly set off a firestorm on the call with one anonymous black employee saying, "The fact that you can be a white male, and come to this meeting and call people racist and say 'white supremacy doesn't exist' when it's blatant at this company is white privilege. ... The fact that he wasn't corrected and was in fact thanked — it makes me sick."
During the discussion, two employees reported that they found themselves crying and screaming at the screen.
Singer reportedly stood by his remarks amid questioning, articulating that "claiming anybody must have a certain viewpoint because of the color of their skin is racist."
What happened next?
The Verge reported that about "a half hour after the meeting ended, Fried posted an internal note saying that Singer has been suspended pending an investigation."
On Monday, Singer reportedly resigned, as did at least 20 other of Basecamp's 57 employees. Singer issued an email statement to the news outlet, saying:
I objected to an employee's statement that we live in a white supremacist culture. White supremacism exists, and America's history of racism still presents terrible problems, but I don't agree that we should label our entire culture with this ideology.
On the call, the view I gave was we all want a future where everyone is treated fairly. And yet there can be disagreement on whether defining our culture as "white supremacist" helps us to get there. The subject is so charged that discussing such disagreements at work quickly leads to misunderstanding, heated accusations, and loss of faith.
Unfortunately, painful misunderstanding did result. Tensions were so high after the call that I decided it won't be tenable to stay on the team. I gave my resignation over the weekend.
It was during the contentious exchange involving Singer that several employees decided to quit Basecamp, the Verge reported, adding that several other employees are expected to leave in the coming days.
In a post responding to the incident, the Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote: "[There once was a time] when political activism in business was controversial. But in these hyper-political times, refusing to turn your company into a workplace of the woke can make you a target."