Cultural dos and don’ts: The impact of executive overreach

This summer, Basecamp (a productivity software maker in Chicago) executives released a memo directed at employees effectively banning talk of societal and political topics on the company’s internal communication platforms. The memo was also published on Basecamp’s external-facing blog. And while the executives have since apologized following a number of employee resignations by those who argued the new policy infringed on their rights, they didn’t reverse the significant culture overhaul caused by this new policy.

Portions of the not-so-subtle memo, such as “[Political discussion] saps our energy, and redirects our dialog towards dark places” and “We treat our company as a product,” struck me as words of misguided, distressed leaders hoping to entirely reverse a culture they themselves built. (If you’re interested, more on that here.)

The memo, once public, drew various responses from companies across industries. Journalists and speakers quickly opposed the policy changes through op-ed pieces, featuring headlines like “Basecamp’s New Policies Demonstrate What Not to Do With Your Privilege” and “Don’t Ban ‘Politics’ at Work.” Meanwhile, the cofounder and CEO of Coinbase responded on Twitter with support of Basecamp’s decision, as the cryptocurrency business owner also recently implemented a similar policy.

To me, Basecamp’s move ran counter to the culture we have strived to create at Sikich.

I see a few main problems with Basecamp’s “no-politics-talk” policy. One, it’s inappropriate to try and police what employees say; and two, it’s nearly impossible to regulate this. Now, I’m not suggesting employees at Sikich use our technology platforms to debate political issues for hours during the workday. But when you try to eliminate specific topics from discussion, you’re policing people to do or say what you deem permissible – and I don’t agree with that. There’s not a particular topic of conversation I’d ever identify to my team as off limits. Truthfully, I think when colleagues talk to one another about their passions and interests (whether socially driven or not), they’re putting forth the effort to build a stronger, communicative relationship with their peers.

Second, a policy this extreme implies a level of distrust in your employees. The culture we’ve built at Sikich is foundationally rooted in trust – trust that employees won’t cross a line into offensive territory, and even more so, trust that employees will utilize meetings and communication tools to do their work first and foremost. Sikich isn’t a product, and our culture sure isn’t either. We don’t feel the need to communicate to our internal teams that they should be focused on their work – they already understand and respect that.

My vision for our organization’s culture is defined by one word: agility. To have an agile culture, we must have a culture full of understanding, trust and encouragement. People don’t apply to work at Sikich only because we are a top national professional services organization. Candidates choose careers with Sikich because our culture aligns with their values and goals. And that’s simply how we’ve built the culture we are proud of today.

Further, a memo like the one released by Basecamp seems like an empty message. It’s very hard to expect every employee in an organization to use the honor system and not speak about societal issues or trends. While emails and instant messages can be monitored, there are much better ways for IT teams to spend their time. You can promote this new policy as much as you want, but there is no realistic way to actually ensure every employee follows the code to a tee. A better idea is to focus on creating a culture where employees feel supported and energized to deliver for their stakeholders, and colleagues trust one another to maintain a positive, safe work environment.

Creating better goals

We know our culture isn’t perfect at Sikich, nor will it ever please every person. However, we try to continually strengthen our culture by knocking down corporate brick walls between management and employees or between different business units. We encourage our teams to work where or when they’re most productive and successful. Any rule or policy that contradicts that is unwelcome and not part of our plan. We’re also prioritizing diversity and inclusion in our hiring strategies. We want to attract employees who have different backgrounds and experiences. By bringing new voices and perspectives to the table, our commitment to diversity will fuel our future innovation and strengthen our culture.

I also believe that employees value an organization and its leaders when they prioritize addressing social issues and supporting the communities they work in. In Basecamp’s memo, the executives say it’s not their company’s place to “get behind one movement or another with time or treasure,” referring to social issues. As a leader, I’d argue it’s my duty to encourage employees to volunteer their time and energy to causes they care about.

Basecamp’s executives may have meant well, and I’m sure they did. However, their memo revealed their lack of trust in their employees. Healthy cultures are rooted in trust, not rules.

To learn more about my ideas for Sikich’s future, visit the Lessons from Leadership homepage.



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