David Heinemeier Hansson

April 28, 2021

Let it all out

Casey's reporting for The Verge brought some of the dirty laundry that helped motivate our change of direction regarding societal politics at Basecamp onto the public record. It erased part of that fine line we try to toe between sharing as much of the inner workings at the company as possible while respecting the confidentiality of employees, internal deliberations, and heated discussions. That's why we didn't include it in the public announcements in the first place. It's difficult to retain good working relationships if you're concerned about what might be turned into a story or not.

At the same time, leaks of all kinds have brought serious issues to light in the industry. And investigative reporters are not only completely within their right to cultivate and use such leaks, I'd say they're obligated to do it! So it's only right and fair that when this is turned at Basecamp, at least when evaluating the reporting, we take it on the chin.

Either way, now that particularly the incident regarding the Best Names List (read Casey's piece for his reporting based on employee leaks) is on the public record, I think it's also only right and fair to share our internal response, as well as the specific comment that ended up being reported to HR. Then it’s out there for anyone to consider for themselves. 

The following account is my response to the initial disclosure and apology made by the person leading the team that had maintained the list over the years. That initial disclosure had some inconsistencies and omissions which led to an exhaustive investigation. It also included the arguments and graphics that, as Casey reported, positioned the existence of the list on a pyramid of escalations that can lead to genocide.

The long-running existence of the "Best Names Ever" list that [employee 1] described yesterday represents a serious, collective, and repeated failure at Basecamp. One that we need to learn from together by transparently tracing its origin and history.

Not only was it disrespectful to our customers, and a breach of basic privacy expectations, but it was also counter to creating an inclusive workplace. Nobody should think that maintaining such a list is okay or sanctioned behavior here.

Furthermore, Jason and I should have caught this list. We are ultimately responsible for setting the tone of what's acceptable behavior at Basecamp, and in this instance we didn't. I'm sorry.

Full history
[An exhaustive investigative account of the who, when, where, and what regarding this list. Tracing its origin, maintenance, and ultimate deletion. Including a discussion of how this list had been discussed in chat rooms on two occasions.]

Lessons
Today, in 2021, I'd like to believe that many people would have raised concerns about this list, if it had come to their attention. Because times have changed. Sensibilities have changed. Awareness has changed. In fact, this is what happened, when concerns were raised last week and over the weekend.

This is not a mark of failure in and of itself! Yes, I'm embarrassed that we didn't put a stop to this list far earlier. But there are limits to how much it makes sense to beat ourselves up about that. With today's clearer vision, it's apparent that it was wrong and inappropriate. That's progress!

We have to be careful to celebrate that progress proportionally, though. I was dismayed to see the argument advanced in text and graphics on [Employee 1’s] post that this list should be considered part of a regime that eventually could lead to genocide. That's just not an appropriate or proportionate comparison to draw.

And further more, I think it makes us less able to admit mistakes and accept embarrassment, without being tempted to hide transgressions in the past. If the stakes for any kind of bad judgement in this area is a potential link to a ladder that ends in genocide, we're off on a wrong turn.

People make mistakes. Some times repeatedly. And some times they're blind to those mistakes until times or sensibilities change. That does not mean they're irredeemable people or deserve to have the most severe consequences exacted upon them.

In the current environment, I can completely imagine another company overreacting to an incident like this. Furiously sanctioning, reprimanding, or even firing transgressors for having played any part. We're not going to do that at Basecamp.

At Basecamp, we're going to honestly confront our mistakes, correct our wrongs, and then forgive, and move on. Of course, there are limits to that, and some transgressions can't follow such a path, but most probably can. And at any rate, there should be proportionality in our response.

Onward.

Following this account, several people at the company chimed in. Including someone who took objection to the deescalation I attempted in the write-up, and compounded the original analytical framework that used the genocide pyramid by expanding it with colonial atrocities and domestic terrorism. This employee had taken part in one of the chat room discussions where several names from the list had been bantered around for fun.

So I replied:

[Employee 2], I can appreciate how those examples raise the sensitivity of anything related to names, minorities, and power dynamics.

Still, I don't think we serve the cause of opposing colonial regimes or racist ideology by connecting their abusive acts around names to this incident. And I don't think we serve an evaluation of you and others making fun of names in a Campfire session by drawing that connection either.

We can recognize that forceful renaming by a colonial regime is racist and wrong while also recognizing that having a laugh at customer names behind their back is inappropriate and wrong without equating or linking the two.

To take an example from the Campfire incident. The name [customer name] is an English surname that you can trace back to the 1500s. It's funny because it sounds like [phonetic connection to customer name]. Having a laugh at that does not connect you to any colonial or racist origins. It's inappropriate and wrong because it's disrespectful of the customer, a violation of basic expectations of privacy, and sets a bad cultural tone at Basecamp.

Same too with the other name that was primarily made fun of in that Campfire session: [another customer name]. It's a surname that follows the Nordic style of "Son of [that customer name]". And it's again funny for phonetic reasons, because it starts with [word fragment from customer name]. [That word fragment] is just a funny word! It's still inappropriate for us to be laughing at individually named customers in our company Campfires, but not because there are any racist or colonial overtones to it.

In fact, reviewing the original list in question, the vast majority of names on it fall into the category of the two specific examples above. It's not a list of, say, primarily Asian names. Out of the 78 names listed on the last version we were able to recover, just 6 names appear to be Asian.

So connecting this to the shootings in Atlanta, because the Asian victims of that atrocity had their names misspelled in news reports, is exactly the kind of linkage I'd like us to avoid when we analyze our mistakes together at work. It needlessly creates this extremely high-stakes environment where inappropriately making fun of a name like [customer name of nordic heritage] can be rendered as part of some larger narrative of colonialism and racism that it just does not merit.

Anyway, again, I completely appreciate that this is an incredible sensitive time when it comes to questions of identity, racism, and colonialism. Much more so than even just a few years ago when nobody called out that Campfire session analyzed above as being inappropriate or wrong, or sought to investigate the origins of the Best Names Ever list.

We need to at once respect that sensitivity, not let it draw connections in overreach, and respond proportionally. We should in my opinion also be humble enough to recognize that if we participated in acts just a few years ago that we now consider deplorable, it's possible for others now to be where we were then without being irredeemable people.

Doing all of that is not easy! But we can try, do our best, improve, and forgive ✌️❤️

This was the reply that triggered two anonymous complaints to HR. The one complaint included charges that the reply constituted discrimination against [employee 2] on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, or other protected-class attributes (though did not specify which exact attributes they felt this was targeted discrimination against) as well as a charge that it constituted harassment.

I've read that reply many times now. I can't in my most critical reading find evidence or origin for the charges that this constituted protected-class discrimination or harassment. But obviously I'm not exactly an impartial party in the matter, so we followed our standard procedure regarding such complaints and sent it, along with all the context, to external labor lawyers for review. They concluded that no discrimination or harassment had occurred, and we shared their findings with the company.

As you might imagine, tensions at Basecamp were pretty high following all of this. The Best Names List discussion had quickly devolved into employees hurling angry words at each other, and had to be closed by Jason. 

This was the second such discussion in a few months that had to be closed out following an acrimonious devolution that pitted employees against each other, and stressed these complicated power dynamics between managers and reports, all on a company-wide stage that invariably pulled everyone into the spectacle.

Together with other acrimonious debates and inappropriate discussions with roots in societal politics on our internal communication systems, this formed the context that led to the recently announced changes. After going through repeated, worsening incidents like this, we took a hard look at why we kept doing this, and kept getting the same unproductive, unhealthy results.

I've read some opinions on all of this that charge that facilitating these kinds of discussions, however acrimonious or uncomfortable or unresolved, is actually good, because a lot of life right now is acrimonious, uncomfortable, and unresolved, so work should reflect that. I can't get behind those arguments. As I wrote in the segment posted from our internal announcement of the changes, all of that, inasmuch as it does not directly relate to the business, is already so much of everyone's lives all the time on Twitter, Facebook, or wherever. Demanding that it also has to play out in our shared workspaces isn't going to lead anywhere good, in my opinion.

But more so than just whether I think that's productive or healthy, a significant contingency of Basecamp employees had been raising private flags about this as well. Finding the discussions to be exactly acrimonious, uncomfortable, unresolved. Yet feeling unable to speak up out of fear that they'd have an accusatory label affixed to their person for refusing to accept the predominant framing of the issues presented by other more vocal employees.

Which gets to the root of the dilemma. If you do indeed strive to have a diverse workforce both ideologically and identity wise, you're not going to find unison on all these difficult, contentious issues. If you did, you'd both be revealing an intellectual monoculture and we wouldn't be having these acrimonious debates.

So if that is something you want, I continue to believe that a diverse workforce _should_ be something that you want, you have to consider what guardrails to put on the internal discourse. My belief is that the key to working with other people of different ideological persuasions is to find common cause in the work, in the relations with customers, in the good we can do in the industry. Not to repeatedly seek out all the hard edges where we differ. Those explorations are better left to the smaller groups, to discussions outside of the company-wide stage, and between willing participants.

I respect that others will come to different conclusions on all of these questions. Particularly around whether the new direction we've set at Basecamp, where these societal political questions unrelated to work are being moved from company workspaces to private employee channels, is incompatible with what they want out of a company. We all have our principles, and I will always respect people who are willing to follow theirs.

Yesterday, we offered everyone at Basecamp an option of a severance package worth up to six months salary for those who've been with the company over three years, and three months salary for those at the company less than that. No hard feelings, no questions asked. For those who cannot see a future at Basecamp under this new direction, we'll help them in every which way we can to land somewhere else. 

These are really hard questions. I've been inundated with emails from executives and employees who are wrestling with them at their companies. I hope that the airing of our dirty laundry, and the shitstorm its caused, can help others answer their own questions better. Whatever the answer they deem right for them.

It's also a really hard time. We've always been a remote company, but we've never gone a year and a half without seeing each other. Normally, we'd all have met up thrice during this time to recharge, reconnect, and rehumanize. Add to that all the stress from the pandemic, from those societal politics, from, well, everything we've been through recently, and it's no wonder that everyone is extra vulnerable, extra quick to jump to conclusions, extra likely to escalate. We're human and that's a human response.

At Basecamp, it's going to be a tough transition. We've committed to a deeply controversial stance, some employees are relieved, others are infuriated, and that pretty well describes much of the public debate around this too. But this too shall pass. We've been in business for over twenty years. Been through a myriad of controversies and challenges, and we'll be through this too.

Onward, indeed.