caution tape

What Managers Can Learn From the Basecamp Fiasco

May 17, 2021 Leadership
Virginia Backaitis
By Virginia Backaitis

It’s long been said that it takes two to tango. The same holds true for getting work done in the 21st century. Only now the “two” aren’t necessarily coworkers or even workers and their bosses. Top brass, and this includes owners and CEOs, can no longer expect employees to respect their wishes or follow their rules by default. Executives who have “my way or the highway” attitudes will increasingly find themselves lording over partially occupied physical and virtual workspaces with help wanted signs posted on their doors.

The fiasco at Basecamp that resulted in more than one-third of its staff leaving the company serves as the perfect example. Management had a problem and they decided to solve it by laying down the law with employees via a blog post. Maybe that kind of thing worked in 1921 with a note in an employee locker, but not today when individual and collective voices reverberate on company intranets. Carrots and sticks have lost much of their power. Instead, managers must listen, empathize, encourage, share, coach and support. When they try to exert their will by force, workers rebel and quit.

This is not to suggest that Basecamp didn’t have problems to solve. Most companies do. The question of the moment is what can managers learn from the fiasco? We posed the question to some of our favorite workplace authors and experts. Here’s what they had to say:

Don’t Run Away, Deal With the Problem

Alissa Carpenter, author "How to Listen and How to Be Heard: Inclusive Conversations at Work"
Alissa Carpenter, communication and inclusion trainer and author of "How to Listen and How to Be Heard: Inclusive Conversations at Work"

This all started because employees wanted to talk about the culture and their experience at Basecamp, the virtual workplace they were spending hours of their day. In addition to their job functions, many of these employees were volunteering their time on a committee that they thought was going to address these issues and other important diversity, equity and inclusion matters within their organization. Not only were they blindsided about the lack of support senior leadership was giving for their efforts, but also by their interest in their overall wellbeing.

As humans, we can’t separate who we fundamentally are in and out of work. Our values, beliefs and our experiences make us who we are and they don’t turn off the moment we step into an office or log onto our work computers. They guide the decisions we make and our interactions with others. By banning activities, benefits, resources and communities from discussing or participating in anything that could lead to a difficult conversation, it is clear that senior leaders were not ready to make changes but instead gloss over them. Basecamp had an opportunity to do things differently and some things they should have considered are:

Diversity, equity and inclusion aren’t things that you can gloss over. Adding things like employee resource groups can be a great first step, but they need the backing of resources and senior leadership to give employees a platform to make change. Don’t have employees volunteer their time to make changes that you’re not willing to back. And don’t put out messages on social media and otherwise that you’re committed to making change when you’re really avoiding it.

Leading a company is not just about the product or service that you sell, it’s about the people behind it and setting them up for success. Be humble and recognize that all of this is difficult, both for you to hear and for your employees to share. Even stating that you are trying to process this new information and are working through what to do next is taking a step. Be open to unlearning old ways of thinking and be open to trying new things. 

When these extremely important issues are being brought up by employees, it’s important to listen to understand and ask clarifying questions like 'tell me more' and 'help me understand.' It’s also essential to never question someone’s lived experiences. Phrases like 'I am sorry if you feel that way' send a message that you’re questioning their validity. Instead use phrases like 'I am sorry that you feel that way.' It takes a lot of courage for someone to bring up these experiences, especially to senior leadership.

Understand that the issues will not be resolved right then and there and it’s OK to not have all the answers. Jumping into action without all of the information, banning things that could lead to a difficult conversation, or giving people severance so you don’t have to deal with it doesn’t enhance company culture, it runs away from dealing with it.

The Voice of Your People Matters and Needs to Be Heard

workplace consultant Chester Elton
Chester Elton, workplace consultant, co-author "Anxiety at Work:  8 Strategies to Help Teams Build Resilience, Handle Uncertainty, and Get Stuff Done," as well as best-selling "The Carrot Principle," "All In" and more

We learn from the Basecamp debacle that the voice of your people matters and needs to be heard. The leadership team knew they had issues and so they formed an employee-led group to address them. That was good. But when they didn’t like what they heard, they not only ignored it, they disbanded the group. I’ve seen that before and it never ends well. At Basecamp, when the employees tried again to be heard, they were dismissed and shamed publicly, on a group Zoom call. Who could have predicted that one-third of all employees would resign? Everyone except the leaders of Basecamp. There’s a lesson to be learned: If you ask, listen. And after you listen, even if you don’t like what is being said, do not dismiss the feedback.

The leaders have done the right thing in recanting, but trust takes time to rebuild. It’s up to the leaders now to be transparent and willing to attend to what they hear. It’s not impossible to come back from this, but it’ll take patience, consistency and vulnerability.

Local and Individual Attention Matters

Laurie Ruettimann, author "Betting on You: How to Put Yourself First and (Finally) Take Control of Your Career"
Laurie Ruettimann, workplace expert and author of "Betting on You: How to Put Yourself First and (Finally) Take Control of Your Career"

People hate change, especially when it's not clear how it makes their lives better. Basecamp isn't the first company to ban political discussion and attempt to create a culture of professional detachment. My only question to leaders and HR departments is this: Who thinks a memo from the CEO is a good way to communicate to the workforce in 2021?

Employee communication is an art and a science. When done well, it's taken for granted. Do it poorly, and your company size drops from 57 to 37 on a Friday night. I've been showcasing Epicurious as an example of how to implement a change. They stopped writing about meat back in 2020 without any fanfare because they believe the meat industry is having a negative impact on the climate. Readers didn't notice until Epicurious published an article about their decision in May 2021. Some were outraged, but the editors could show that most of the outrage was fake.

When people talk about politics, they are talking about themselves and their lived experiences. Instead of banning political discussions, try adopting a policy where the company responds quickly and individually. Try flipping the script and doing an intervention and getting to the heart of whatever it is the individual finds so egregious. And fix it. Fast.

Workforce memos are over. Local and individual attention is what matters in the new economy — and what attracts and retains the best and brightest talent.


Diversity as the Default

Sabrina Horn, author "Make It, Don't Fake It: Leading with Authenticity for Real Business Success"
Sabrina Horn, author of "Make It, Don't Fake It: Leading with Authenticity for Real Business Success"

The Basecamp fiasco could have been avoided altogether had leadership embraced diversity as a core value from the very beginning. Promoting greater diversity across the board in the workplace is a no-brainer, especially for a workplace collaboration app. But the issue is you can’t just fake it and suddenly say that diversity is important when your employees decide to walk out on you. It has to be authentic, central to leadership beliefs, part of a company’s value system, and infused through its culture and business processes.

Humility is a superpower in leadership. It is about knowing what you don’t know and having the curiosity, authenticity and confidence to put that out there so that you and your team can find the answers. The ultimate reward rests both in the value of information you might not otherwise get and in the trust that it fosters between you and the people you lead.

Create Space for Respectful Dialogue

Sunny Bonnell, co-author "Rare Breed: A Guide to Success for the Defiant, Dangerous, and Different"
Sunny Bonnell, co-founder, Motto, co-author "Rare Breed: A Guide to Success for the Defiant, Dangerous, and Different"

Not all unforced errors come in tennis. Basecamp’s leadership (and I use that word with very deliberate irony) managed to chase away more than one-third of its workforce with a shortsighted, dangerous edict. Prohibiting its workers from discussing political and societal issues was tone-deaf enough, but then to condescendingly offer employees who couldn’t live with the Big Brother-esque policy a “Here’s your hat, what’s your hurry?” exit package turned stupidity into outrage.

What companies like this don’t understand is that the people most likely to stir up trouble, express unpopular opinions, or otherwise make the top brass uncomfortable, are exactly the same people who will come up with the innovative, game-changing ideas that set those companies above their competition. Those are exactly the people — I call them Rare Breeds — who will say 'Peace' when a thin-skinned employer values their good behavior over their honest opinions.

Companies encourage employees to show up as their 'whole' self, but then punish them when they do. Our political and social beliefs ARE who we are. Work and life are fundamentally intertwined. To silence these beliefs is to silence your own people.

How could have this been handled differently?

The revelation that this isn’t a policy or a piece of culture, but a counterintuitive, unruly, dangerous force that’s woven into some people’s DNA. It doesn’t come from process or brainstorming sessions. You can’t order it like takeout. But you CAN create conditions in which your team feels free and safe to break stuff, defy norms, question everything and have epiphanies.

Mandating what people can talk about, what opinions they can and can’t share, and what parts of themselves they can bring to work is in the disservice of diversity and inclusion. It rages war against it.

Companies need to get better at navigating difficult conversations and creating space for respectful dialogue. They should've opened their ears instead of their mouths. Listening is an act of leadership. But what do most employers do? They tell people who they want them to be. Here are our rules; follow them. Here’s our culture; pour yourself into it. They fail to encourage people to be who they are, flaws and all, and then respect and reward that individuality.

The big question is: What kind of employees will Basecamp attract now?


Featured Research

Related Stories

monkey statues: see, hear, speak no evil


Why Silicon Valley Didn’t Anticipate the COVID Comedown

feet on a translucent ceiling


Building an Inclusive Leadership Pipeline

stormy sky, tornado in the distance


The Key to Thriving in Turbulent Environments: Preparedness and Resilience

Join Top Industry Leaders at the Most Impactful Employee Experience and Digital Workplace Conference of 2023

Reworked Connect