The first time I talked about the “Activist Economy” was in 2017, and even then, I could not have imagined how quickly and the role of societal (and political) issues would become a pervasive part of everyday life and is the subject of this post—work. It’s been nearly a full week since the little 60 person Chicago-based tech company, Basecamp, sent shockwaves through not only the tech world but also the corporate world—and if you aren't paying attention, you should be. I won’t be going into the background of the Basecamp saga, so if you need to get up to speed, please do so here before reading on…
There was one line, however, in the since edited memo from Basecamp Cofounder Jason Fried, which I have been ruminating on since first reading it:
‘‘We are not a social impact company.”
I understand the sentiment—business is business, and shareholders have expectations. But for the past several years as so many companies have championed a multitude of social causes, encouraged open dialogue around previously considered sensitive topics, changed logos to draw attention to a variety of social issues, and increasingly made significant sustainability commitments—new expectations have come with this. “Do well by doing good” became something of a rallying cry led by the marketing, communications, and even HR departments. Companies have sent the signal that they care about social impact—and many employees are choosing to believe them.
All it takes is a seminal moment. As the BLM movement was being reignited, many corporations rushed to show their condemnation of racism and support of equity—yet activists rapidly began to point out that in the corporate ranks, there was little diversity, and so corporate DEI initiatives went into high gear. It was barely a month ago that a growing list of companies came out in public to show their disapproval of Georgia’s voting law, including Delta, Coca-Cola, Major League Baseball, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Salesforce, Viacom, and many more.
Politics and business have become more intertwined than ever.
Each of the many companies that came out against Georgia’s voting law is sending a strong signal to their employees—they’ve taken a stake in society that leadership believes in and supports. And while this doesn’t make them “social impact companies” in the traditional sense—the message it conveys is irreversible because you can’t take a strong position one day and the next, expect employees to leave their opinions on what’s going on in the world at home (even when we WFH).
This is the new contract that many companies are knowingly or unknowingly putting in place whenever a stance is taken. A logo is altered, a socially conscious advertisement made… and employees will take it to heart and bring their opinions and possibly, activism to the workplace. And it is this possibility that is drawing some division. Before Basecamp, the CEO of Coinbase set the expectation that his company would also draw a firm line between company and broader social impact:
Broader societal issues: We don’t engage here when issues are unrelated to our core mission, because we believe impact only comes with focus.
Political causes: We don’t advocate for any particular causes or candidates internally that are unrelated to our mission, because it is a distraction from our mission. Even if we all agree something is a problem, we may not all agree on the solution.
As Basecamp re-ignited the debate, some high-profile personalities such as Jason Calacanis are vocally opposing the mix of “politics at work,” especially when it comes to using internal communication company platforms such as Slack:
Whether a company should or shouldn’t encourage political/societal dialogue at work may be a moot debate, especially if it has already signaled that social impact is important to its’ place, role, and purpose in the world. In this scenario, the company has already embraced social impact and has the additional responsibility to navigate the internal complexities that come with it.