Dear Jason and David, aka the founder-owners of Basecamp who up until 2021 earned 100% of the company’s profits along with Jeff Bezos,
As you know, I am writing this while on medical leave from Basecamp, a condition that was necessary in large part because of the extreme emotional duress I have experienced as an employee at the company. I really did not expect to be thinking about Basecamp while on leave; that is, after all, the whole point of taking a break. But alas, your statements yesterday have forced my hand because they showed up in the Protocol newsletter in my Feed. Whether I will remain on medical leave after publishing this letter is entirely up to you: either up to your benevolence as the dictators of Basecamp, or to your strategic savvy. Probably some combination thereof. Either way, once again, I am in the position of speaking up and using my voice with fear of being fired.
About two and a half years ago, we took a mutual leap of faith. I decided to try out the private sector again, to see if I would have greater impact by earning to give rather than continuing to work directly in nonprofits. As I shared in my cover letter, I researched great companies to work for in the Midwest that built products I believed in, such as tools that helped organizations better manage their work. That’s how I found Basecamp. And similarly, as David shared in my welcome post on Signal v. Noise, my background was unusual for a Basecamp hire. Unusual, but seemingly valued:
When people of different backgrounds and perspectives work together, we make better decisions and better software.David Heinemeier Hansson, January 29, 2019
For the first year, it seemed like things were going well. I was asked to prioritize work that democratized access to data within the company, to ensure we did right by governments in terms of indirect taxes, to amplify the voice of the customer in partnership with our product strategy and customer support teams.
But there were also some yellow flags. Whiffs of smoke that I was starting to pick up on. Your disproportionate, chilling response to a retrospective that you asked for. The whispers of how you had handled a prior company discussion when someone raised the able-ist language in the title of a recently published company book. The continued mourning years later of an executive who had centered the employees as her job, and then was summarily fired for not living up to the additional expectations of working miracles in marketing. The quiet departures of women and people of color, all of whom held their heads up high and left a better place behind than they found it.
And then in February 2020, while I was working on a project to consolidate the company product policies, the first major shock hit me. As part of that project, in response to a recent Moral Quandaries case where it became apparent we were woefully unprepared to investigate and respond to reported cases of abuse of our products, I began working with multiple teams to craft a Use Restrictions Policy. I did a comparative analysis of existing such policies in the tech platform space and created an initial list of restricted uses. Amongst them: hate speech and harassment.
Keen followers will recall that when our Use Restrictions Policy was first officially rolled out, neither hate speech nor harassment were included. One of my colleagues (who comes from a marginalized background) and I (an Asian American woman child of immigrants who had grown up poor) had debated vigorously for their inclusion, with David in writing while Jason gazed from the sidelines, intellectually making our case before ultimately being told: no. We won’t include them yet. Let them stay in the grey area. Let us stay silent.
So, much to my forever regret, we did. I never could forgive myself for that, and thought about the omission each time I was asked to make a policy change. I thought about it through COVID-19, as HEY launched in the midst of a civil rights uprising and we toiled over the customer support cases of people who could afford to pay $99/year for personal email. I thought about it
through when I was asked to check the effect of COVID-19 on our your business (essentially negligible). I resolved to bring it back up after a company-wide discussion on our waning efforts on diversity, equity, and inclusion within Basecamp. To take another run at it: and this time, to not take “no” for an answer. Then the January 6, 2021 insurrection occurred and we began seeing more customer support cases asking about whether Basecamp “discriminated” against its customers. Whether it supported “free speech”. Another Moral Quandaries case came up, one that proved to be the most challenging professional experience of my life — and I’ve worked in refugee camps before!
Over the course of that 10-day Moral Quandaries case investigation and discussion, it became clear to me that the only way to move you two was to prostrate myself. To violate my own sense of personal privacy and list out in excruciating detail example after example of how I have experienced hate and harassment. So I did, and at the end, hate speech and harassment were added to the list.
Against my better judgment, I decided to get involved with the newest incarnation of Basecamp’s “diversity, equity, and inclusion” work. Basically: the work of recognizing each person as a whole human with our own set of individual strengths, development areas, lived experiences, and quirks in how we see the world. It was excruciating work and at the same time invigorating. Breaking down into bite-sized pieces how to exercise our voice as employees. We were just getting started with the DEI Council, just putting in place inclusive processes and structures for decision-making, with our first steering committee meeting to happen sometime later this month or early next.
Anyways, it appears your reaction to the pleas and asks to recognize that Basecamp already represents a diversity of experiences and that we want the company’s software and policies to do the same has once again been lacking and disproportionate. But what’s particularly disappointing is the direction of your reaction. The oppressive direction. The silencing direction.
Jason and David, I believe that your recent company policy changes are both terrible and redeemable. But to be redeemable, you first must recognize that you are a BIG part of the problem. That you too perpetrate the myth that some people deserve to oppress and repress others. Once you hold yourselves publicly self-accountable, then the next step is transparency. Show us all the warts along with the unblemished skin. And from there, we can go about healing Basecamp.
Wishing you clarity, compassion, and humanity,
A time comes when silence is betrayal.Martin Luther King, April 4, 1967
It shouldn’t feel like an act of bravery for a teammate to say when something doesn’t feel right. It should feel like everyone’s expected duty.Janice Burch, February 12, 2018 (link to full article)
Published April 27, 2021. Edited May 3, 2021 to add this context note: today is my last day as an employee at Basecamp. I have decided to leave as a result of the company policies Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson put in place at Basecamp: policies, which in my opinion force the most marginalized employees to continue to disproportionately bear burden at work because we do not have the luxury of being able to compartmentalize our existence. Thank you to all those who have shared your words of solidarity and support. Until everyone feels safe and able to thrive at home, work, and in public, we must continue to raise our voices.