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If there is a manager in your life, there is a good chance that they are miserable right now.
They are miserable for the reasons everyone is miserable: the pandemic; quarantine; the challenges of working from home while raising children; the steady erosion of American democracy. But unlike us working stiffs, managers are miserable for another reason: their employees are miserable, too — and worse, they expect the managers to do something about it.
This is particularly true because the US government has become staggeringly unresponsive to its citizenry — unable to provide for their basic safety and economic security during a historic crisis. Meanwhile, corporations — particularly big US tech corporations — tend to be very responsive to their workforces, courting their feedback regularly and using it to improve the operations of the company. And so the worse that the government performs, the more that workers ask of their employers.
Other managers, though, are taking a look at all of these dynamics and saying the hell with it. Take it away, Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong
It has become common for Silicon Valley companies to engage in a wide variety of social activism, even those unrelated to what the company does, and there are certainly employees who really want this in the company they work for. So why have we decided to take a different approach?
The reason is that while I think these efforts are well intentioned, they have the potential to destroy a lot of value at most companies, both by being a distraction, and by creating internal division. We’ve seen what internal strife at companies like Google and Facebook can do to productivity, and there are many smaller companies who have had their own challenges here. I believe most employees don’t want to work in these divisive environments. They want to work on a winning team that is united and making progress toward an important mission. They want to be respected at work, have a welcoming environment where they can contribute, and have growth opportunities. They want the workplace to be a refuge from the division that is increasingly present in the world.
As a result, Armstrong said, Coinbase would not take positions on broader societal issues, advocate for political causes or candidates, or commit more than a minimal amount of time or resources to nonprofit work. “We are an intense culture and we are an apolitical culture,” he wrote.
Armstrong’s post resonated with some prominent members of the managerial class, who showered it with more than 5,000 Medium claps. “Yet again, Brian Armstrong leads the way,” tweeted Y Combinator founder Paul Graham
. “I predict most successful companies will follow Coinbase’s lead. If only because those who don’t are less likely to succeed.”
As more people read Armstrong’s post, my timelines began to light up with takes. The tweets, which more often come from rank-and-file workers, expressed skepticism
that an organization whose mission is “to use cryptocurrency to bring economic freedom to people all over the world” could also manage to be apolitical. Meanwhile, my direct messages lit up with takes from managers, who argued that a less political company is the kind that most people want to work at. If you’re an underrepresented minority and find yourself regularly confronted with internal posts that you regard as hostile, you’ll probably want to work elsewhere.
And sure, a person who is regularly posting hostile or borderline-hostile messages internally might deserve to be fired. But certain beliefs are protected — you can’t be fired for your views on religion, for example. And so, like basically everything we cover here at The Interface, the question of what employees should be allowed to say — and what they should be allowed to demand from their employers — becomes a question of content moderation.
Given how difficult content moderation is, it’s no surprise that some companies are trying to limit discussion of these issues at all. Coinbase made headlines for it this week, but earlier this month it was Facebook in a similar spot. Here’s Salvador Rodriguez at CNBC
Under the new set of principles, Zuckerberg said, Facebook will ensure all employees feel supported at work, especially the company’s Black community, by strengthening the company’s harassment policy with more protections for underrepresented employees.
The company will also be more specific about which parts of Workplace can be used to discuss social and political issues. This change will be so that employees do not have to confront social issues during their day-to-day work.
If the past year has seen a surge of employee activism in the workplace, it seems, the next will see managers attempt to swing the pendulum back in the other direction. In addition to the moves announced this week, for example, Coinbase also removed two Slack channels that employees were once able to use to ask questions. (Like Facebook, the company now asks employees to submit questions in advance, with Armstrong and other executives answering only the questions with the most votes.)
Talking with current and former Coinbase employees over the past day, I found mixed reviews of Armstrong’s post. (The company itself declined to comment when I asked.)
“Most people disagree with the stance and don’t see a clear-cut separation of the company’s mission and societal issues,” one employee told me. “Others may agree with the spirit of what Brian’s suggesting, knowing how he personally thinks about mainstream issues, but don’t agree with the tone or the approach.”
Whatever you think about Armstrong’s move, I suspect that on some level we will ultimately look back on it as an act of wishful thinking. Armstrong is not alone in wishing that the polarized politics of 2020 would recede into the background long enough to let us concentrate on work. But nothing now unfolding in the world around us suggests that anything of the sort is about to happen. On the contrary, the next several weeks promise to inject politics into everyday life in frequent and possibly unsettling new ways.
It may be that your friendly neighborhood cryptocurrency exchange has nothing of consequence to add to these events. But it seems more than a little odd to declare that to be so in advance, and by fiat. Politics are not vampires — they do not need to be invited in to enter your home.
One last point: it was reported last night on Twitter by Erica Joy
, and confirmed by my own sources, that Coinbase engineers walked out on the job in June after Armstrong declined to issue a public statement affirming that Black lives matter. (He later did so in a Twitter thread.) Inside the company, it is widely believed that Armstrong’s post this week is his response to the walkout — an effort to remind employees who is in charge.
And if that’s the case, it’s worth saying that much of what we have been discussing this summer has not been “politics” so much it has been human rights
. Breonna Taylor was shot dead by police in the middle of the night
; Armstrong’s post referred to the killing only as “recent events regarding Breonna Taylor,” before the coldness of the language was mocked on Twitter and he deleted any reference to her.
There are many issues on which I can easily accept that a cryptocurrency exchange, or really any company, has no opinions. But during an election year in which democracy itself is at stake, and state-backed violence against protesters continues unchecked, racial justice can’t be one of them. By lashing out at employees who dared to challenge him, the CEO’s worldview became crystal clear. Coinbase won’t be apolitical so much as it will be as political as he wants it to be, and those politics will be whatever Brian Armstrong says they are.