Communicating culture change: A lesson from those banning politics at work

Communicating culture change: A lesson from those banning politics at work

Claire Walker

Claire Walker

With so much innovation coming from today’s tech firms, the number of major announcements they’re making on a regular basis has skyrocketed. Nowadays, companies aren’t relying solely on the media to get their news out into the world. They can use their owned channels and upload an announcement to their website and social feeds in a matter of minutes. They’re usually drawing attention to the wonderful new things the company is doing. Every so often though, they upload something very different.

I’m referring here mainly to announcements that reveal cultural changes, which have become something of a normality in recent years. Coinbase banned discussions around politics and social matters last year, for example, which was followed by Basecamp banning those topics on its company-wide Basecamp account and even taking it a step further by stopping 360 employee performance reviews and disbanding all of its committees. Both companies’ announcements raised eyebrows and concerns across the industry.

The crux of the matter

What’s fascinating about ‘no more politics’ announcements is the manner in which the message is delivered. As someone with their ear to the ground on all things reputation, I found the Basecamp statement was especially interesting. This was a bold, confrontational announcement that explained a number of changes in the company, some of which have proven unpopular externally and may be disliked internally too. The tone was almost daring the reader to challenge them. It was the higher-ups saying “this is what we’re doing, deal with it”.

Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the decision to ban political discussion in the workplace, there are lessons to be learnt here. Let’s not forget that this wasn’t a reaction to a crisis, it wasn’t a story uncovered by an investigative journalist, there haven’t been any laws broken – the company opted to share private information willingly.

They identified that these are contentious matters and sought to disclose the decisions to remove any risk of a potential white blower sharing the information externally anyway. There’s nothing wrong with getting out in front of a story and it can often be the correct strategy in certain circumstances. In this scenario though, three things really niggled me.

Firstly, Basecamp’s announcement didn’t just reveal the banning of political talk on its company channel. It included the revelation that it was disbanding all committees. It also revealed the decision to no longer use 360 employee performance reviews and, instead, managers and team leaders would be solely responsible for performance reviews. In this one announcement, they released three decisions that arguably could result in question marks over the health of Basecamp’s culture and conditions employees face. Would it have been better to reveal such decisions one by one over a longer time period instead of dumping all three at once? Did the committee and 360 reviews decision even need communicating?

Secondly, the importance of reading the room and getting the tone right cannot be overstated. Every business operates differently in one way or another, sure. And, for some, maybe committees really don’t work. Whatever the activity a business pursues or stops though, explaining the reasoning and decision for doing so clearly and in a way that doesn’t provoke is critical. For example, explaining the removal of 360 feedback because they’re “not very useful” isn’t sufficient. After all, any seasoned professional knows that reviews such as this, like almost any activity, is only effective if implemented correctly. At the moment there is growing pressure to improve business culture and look after employees more. The messaging for an announcement that in any way touches on employee performance should reflect that.

Thirdly, business decisions are made with the best intentions most of the time. Sometimes, they’re made on gut feeling and with minimal data and insight. Political discussion, the effectiveness of committees, and the usefulness of 360 reviews aren’t exactly quantifiable. Therefore, a decision on them is based on the hope that doing something different will work out better. If you’re communicating a change around matters such as these, there’s an element of humility needed, and ego has to be left at the door. No company knows categorically whether banning political discussion will be better, so communicate your hope that it will be and your desire that employees’ work lives will be improved; don’t simply position something as bad and must be banned.

Do these decisions really matter?

In a word – yes. They should matter, anyway. Now, don’t get me wrong, political discussion can be challenging, draining, and can drive a wedge between even the closest of colleagues – so I understand why an employer might want to minimise this.

It would be interesting to know exactly how this decision was reached though. Did this come from the workforce as a request and, if so, did a majority of employees approve it? Or was it a dictatorial decision, forced upon employees? One suspects it’s the latter.

Furthermore, who determines what is and is not ‘political’ and what falls under the umbrella term ‘social matters’? My take is that topics such as diversity and climate change would be off limits, given their political and social nature, and that is to the detriment of all parties. Without discourse on these topics, employees have no power in holding their employers to account for failures or lack of action on important global and societal issues. Boardrooms become echo chambers for the white elite, because they’re not tuning in to what the workforce cares about.

What’s the alternative?

As the CEO and leader of Firefly, my view is that there are viable alternatives to the ‘no political discourse’ approach. Businesses should trust their employees to know when to speak up about what’s important to them politically and to know when it’s appropriate. They should listen to employees’ views and how that affects the organisation and consider what the business could or should be doing in response.

What it really comes down to is that employers should trust that the employees will know when to get on with the work and deliver what’s needed to clients and customers. Set clear work objectives, help people stay focused, and ultimately treat people like the adults they are. Yes, it’s more effort than a ban, but businesses of today can’t simply restrict the things that require more effort. 

An open culture will reflect well on company reputation. Just look at the extremes to which many tech companies go to so that, on one hand, their employees feel heard, valued, and respected, and on the other hand, they can be seen as good companies to work for and invest in. The likes of Microsoft, IBM, and many others, wouldn’t be driving diversity and sustainability transformation to the degree they are if it weren’t for sound business and reputation reasons.

As for an alternative for 360 employee performance reviews, I would ask any company that’s not found 360 reviews successful whether they simply need a different approach to how they undertake them, instead of discarding them altogether. Maybe they could benefit from changing the tools they use for the reviews, or train people to improve how they complete reviews, or even bring in professionals to complete them so it’s more objective. It seems to me that the senior management at Basecamp might benefit hugely from a good, constructive, and positive 360 experience, because more self-awareness builds stronger relationships and stronger relations aids a more positive reputation. More impactful 360s start at the top and, if it is done well, it will reverberate a positive change for the better down through the organisation.

I’m looking forward to seeing how other well-known tech companies communicate changes such as this in future – whether they follow the ‘drop all the changes in a single update’ approach, keep quiet and wait for information on updates to be leaked, or drip feed the information gradually over time. When it comes to banning political discussion in the workplace, the industry has been going in the opposite direction in recent years, but it’s possible we’re about to witness a change. It would be a major shame if bans on conversation around politics and social matters become more widely adopted, at least in my view. What’s yours?

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