Episode 83: Barred At Work

In the eighty-third episode of The Latest, we explore whether discussing politics at work is more painful than discussing work at work. Sterling Bennett, host of the “49ers Access” podcast, joins the program for this week’s O.J. Simpson Twitter Update.

The Latest with Greg Ott
The Latest with Greg Ott
Episode 83: Barred At Work


Those voices are discussing discussing politics in the workplace, the least desirable topic of conversation with your coworkers aside from every other topic of conversation. 

As companies contend with more and more political debates entering the workplace, many engaged employees find themselves asking the same question: is water cooler talk related to climate change? 

Last week, software company Basecamp, best known for its fun corporate message boards and $100 email addresses, announced a company-wide ban on “societal and political discussions” on its internal platform, believing contentious conversations should remain within the exclusive domain of the rest of the internet. 

As part of a broader rollout of “changes focused on the individual,” the individual being John Galt, the company also eliminated its so-called “paternalistic benefits,” like fitness memberships or continued education plans, in favor of their monetary value for the remainder of the year, a nice reminder that you’re free to cash out that college fund for an Xbox Series X at any given time. 

In response, one-third of Basecamp’s employees — many of whom had been with the company since its inception — quit in response to the decision to bring the company “back to basics, back to individual responsibility, and back to work,” demonstrating that they were willing to adhere to those first two principles but not the last.

Basecamp’s assertion that it’s not a social impact company stands in contrast to recent actions carried out by companies like Coca-Cola, Delta, and Major League Baseball, all of which (eventually) spoke out against Georgia’s new restrictive voting rights legislation, which restricts voting access to anyone using so much as a black pen. 

North Carolina still hasn’t fully recovered from businesses that fled after passing its so-called 2016 bathroom bill, which injected a layer of fantasy horror atop the real-life horror of needing to visit the restroom at Walmart.

And across the political spectrum, from Chick-fil-A to Ben and Jerry, from Hobby Lobby to Patagonia, from My Pillow to Nike, companies have been carving out stances to ensure that customers know whether they’re blue or red — meaning at some point, Pepsi’s going to have to make up its mind.

Of course, Basecamp isn’t the first and only company to embark on limiting political speech at work — last September, crypto crapto Coinbase instituted a similar policy to prevent its employees from asking each other, “hey, do we work for a Ponzi scheme?” 

But I’ve come a long way on this idea that “work is just a place to work,” the place where you’re expected to spending a third of your day focused solely on the mail merge at hand. 

A recent survey from MetLife, a company known for their surveys, found that 9 out of 10 people would prefer to work for a company that holds values similar to their own over a job that pays more, which explains all of the yoga studios in your neighborhood. 

And as Fast Company has pointed out, many successful businesses, new and old, have found ways to make advocacy into a positive aspect of their brand — Levis’ focuses on sustainability, Dick’s Sporting Goods doesn’t sell assault weapons, and slowly but surely, Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritavile is poisoning all of the Baby Boomers to the brink of extinction. 

All of the thinkpieces debating “woke companies” and “free speech” gloss over the fact that this is still a country where labor loses time and time again, where at-will employment makes it easy to fire workers for virtually any reason, where so much as a whiff of unionization means that McDonald’s is going to start spying on you Facebook account.

Now, believe me —  I don’t want to get roped into the QAnon Slack Channel any more than the other guy wants to get copied on my Melt Down All The Guns And Use The Steel To Build A Theme Park thread, but you just can’t sever certain topics from politics. Thoughtfully discussing policies related to childcare, healthcare, and racial and gender equality in the workplace isn’t exactly talking about the weather.

I don’t assume you enjoy enrolling in new healthcare plans, 401k accounts, or insurance policies for your dog every time you sign up for a new job, either, but because the United States offers next to no credible social safety net, the workplace is the practical place where politics can be tangibly visible. 

I’m not going to wake up tomorrow and start texting my colleagues about what Hillary Clinton thinks about Afghanistan — just like nobody wants to hear from her, nobody wants to hear from me. 

But when you consider that the average U.S. salary is around 55 grand, while the average CEO makes 278x the average employee, is it any surprise that employees might start up a group thread to suggest that we might want to start changing  around a couple of laws?