A CEO Went Viral for Banning Politics at His Company — Here’s Why He’s Wrong

A CEO Went Viral for Banning Political Conversations at His Company — Here’s Why he’s Wrong

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Fairygodboss
April 19, 2024 at 6:38PM UTC

Whether the workplace is an appropriate sphere for political conversations has long been contested. 

Historically, popular wisdom — as seen in advice captured elsewhere on this site — points in the direction that, no, your coworkers don’t need to hear your thoughts on a candidate’s voting record. Of course, this does come from the same trove of “historically popular wisdom” that deemed salary sharing a sin, encouraged women not to discuss their plans for a family at work (or otherwise risk being mommy-tracked), and generally promoted a flattening of individuals’ selves and identities to mollify the white, male, hetero and cis corporate powers that be. But more on that later! 

In short, whether politics belong at work has already been considered a polarizing idea in and of itself. And recently, one CEO decided to make his opinion on that subject law by flat-out banning political conversations of any stripe within his workforce. 

In a memo published to Medium that quickly went viral, Coinbase CEO and Co-founder Brian Armstrong wrote that political discussions would no longer be permitted at his company. 

“It has become common for Silicon Valley companies to engage in a wide variety of social activism, even (when it’s) 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?” Armstrong wrote. “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.” 

Most employees “don’t want to work in these divisive environments,” he said, and would instead prefer to “work on a winning team that is united and making progress toward an important mission.” (A mission that, at Coinbase, is said to be about bringing “economic freedom” to the world through cryptocurrency, but let’s be real. The “important mission” here, as is the case at most for-profit companies, is to make Coinbase and its stakeholders money.) Armstrong then went on to note that Coinbase employees are no longer allowed to: 

  • “Debate causes or political candidates internally that are unrelated to work”

  • “Expect the company to represent our personal beliefs externally”

  • “Take on activism outside of our core mission at work”

Armstrong added that he fully expected excitement from employees over the ban. And if you, for some reason, weren’t excited about it? Well, you could always quit.

“I suspect the vast majority of people will be excited to proceed in this direction — after all, the mission is what we all signed up for and is what Coinbase is uniquely positioned to achieve as a company,” he wrote. “But for some employees, working at an activism focused company may be core to what they want, and we want to prompt that conversation with their manager to help them get to a better place. Life is too short to work somewhere that you aren’t excited about, and we’re happy to make that a win-win conversation… We need to do a better job of being authentic about who we are, and hopefully this blog post is a first step in that direction.”

Workers were given a week to agree to Armstrong’s new rule or else give notice, something at least 60 employees chose to do.

And now, for the truly awful part — it’s being reported that Armstrong’s “political conversations” ban was specifically in reaction to Black Lives Matter.

According to Wired, as was the case at so many other workplaces, employees of Coinbase (virtually) gathered in the days following the murder of George Floyd to share their grief — and also, for Black employees, to give voice to long-simmering feelings of a lack of inclusion at the company. They also wanted to know — would Coinbase, and Armstrong as its leader, be making a public statement in support of Black lives? Claiming he was that day “there to listen,” Armstrong waited until a company all-hands meeting the following day to address the question directly. And that’s when things took a sharp turn for the worst.

“The CEO began by acknowledging the pain of the speakers the previous day, but then turned to a discussion of Coinbase’s mission of ‘economic freedom’ and its ‘apolitical’ culture,” Gregory Barber wrote for Wired. “His waffling in response to a question of whether racism was linked to that mission appeared to light a fire. Pressed on whether the company would say the words ‘Black Lives Matter,’ Armstrong again demurred. ‘TBD,’ he said.” 

A virtual walkout across the company soon followed. And although Armstrong at first made the motions of an apology to employees — announcing Coinbase’s intent to donate to BLM organizations and set new diverse hiring targets — he ultimately doubled down in a far different direction, culminating in his “political conversations” ban.

Even if this ban hadn’t come as a direct response to conversations about racism, it would still be wrong.

The fact a clear, linear thread can be drawn between protests over racial injustice and a silencing of any similar conversations at Armstrong’s company — especially when those conversations involved Black employees who themselves felt silenced and mistreated — is horrifying. But even if this ban had gone into effect at a different point in time, it would still be deeply wrong. 

For starters, you have to ask who a “no politics” rule is designed to benefit — i.e. whose comfort is made possible and prioritized by it. And you also have to ask what gets deemed “political” in the first place, and by whom. Plenty of things have been politicized — say, a woman’s right to bodily autonomy or two people of the same gender identity wanting to get married or whether a mask should be worn to protect others during a pandemic or a Black person’s right to simply live — that, I would certainly argue, should never have been up for political debate in the first place. To collapse all of those made-political things — be they an aspect of your personal identity or a community you belong to or a right you’re having to fight for — into an off-limits “workplace taboo” category is wrong. 

Armstrong says Coinbase is an “apolitical company.” But that is simply impossible, based on the scope of people it employs — namely, people who are not only white and male like him. To insist on a company being apolitical is to deny so many of its workers the right to be authentically themselves, to bring their full identity to work along with them and to give voice to the things that affect them most. And, I would add, to insist on eliminating those conversations at this precise moment in time — ahead of a major U.S. election in which so many people have so much at stake — is a special kind of cruelty. 

Too many people have never had the choice of what about them gets labeled “political.” The least someone like Armstrong, from his view in Silicon Valley’s C-Suite, can do is not add to that injustice further through enforced silence.

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