Basecamp loses a third of its staff over internal freedom of speech row

Basecamp screen on smartphone

Collaboration software company Basecamp suffered a serious setback late last week after a third of its staff reportedly left following disputes over the company's attitude toward internal political debates.

The company's heads of design, marketing, and customer support have left, along with their lead iOS developer.

The controversy began after the collaboration software company's co-founder and CEO Jason Fried wrote a blog post last Monday titled Changes at Basecamp describing several new company rules. Alongside “no more lingering or dwelling on past decisions,” the company also announced the end of “paternalistic benefits” and canceled fitness benefits and wellness allowances. The company replaced these benefits with a cash payment for this year.

Fried also announced “no more societal and political discussions on our company Basecamp account.”

"Sensitivities are at 11, and every discussion remotely related to politics, advocacy, or society at large quickly spins away from pleasant. You shouldn't have to wonder if staying out of it means you're complicit, or wading into it means you're a target," he said.

According to reports, the decision stemmed mainly from an internal discussion over a long-kept list of customer names that some employees had found amusing. Employees had complained about the racist connotations of listing some of the names. Internal management condemned and removed the list but asked employees to move on from the discussion. This provoked further debate by employees, which management took issue with.

In his blog post, Fried also announced the company shut down all of its committees. The company had operated a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) council that had attracted numerous employees. Its DEI work would now be the responsibility of one individual, it said.

In a separate blog post, co-founder and CTO David Heinemeier Hansson explained the decision: "If you're in doubt as to whether your choice of forum or topic for a discussion is appropriate, please ask before posting," he said. "But if you make a mistake, it's not the end of the world. Someone will gently remind you of the etiquette, and we'll move on. This isn't some zero-tolerance, max-consequences new policy."

Two days later, Hansson revealed the company offered a severance package worth up to six months' salary for those who’ve been with the company for over three years, and three months for those who have been with the company for less than that. "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," he said.

On Friday, lead iOS developer Zach Waugh tweeted about his departure.

"I resigned today from my role as Head of Marketing at Basecamp due to recent changes and new policies," tweeted Andy Didorosi the same day.

Other employees who posted that they were leaving on Twitter included head of design Jonas Downey, head of customer support Kristin Aardsma, Conor Muirhead, who also led the iOS team, and senior administrative assistant Navid Afshar.

Sam Stephenson, who helped develop several open source projects at the company, tweeted his own resignation. "Effective immediately, I will make no further updates to, nor releases of, any of the aforementioned open-source software I worked on at Basecamp. This is entirely my decision. Thank you for understanding."

Several former staffers received job leads on their Twitter feeds the same day.

At least one customer canceled their account, while many took to Twitter to voice their disapproval of the company's actions.

Danny Bradbury

Danny Bradbury has been a print journalist specialising in technology since 1989 and a freelance writer since 1994. He has written for national publications on both sides of the Atlantic and has won awards for his investigative cybersecurity journalism work and his arts and culture writing. 

Danny writes about many different technology issues for audiences ranging from consumers through to software developers and CIOs. He also ghostwrites articles for many C-suite business executives in the technology sector and has worked as a presenter for multiple webinars and podcasts.