Bitcoin is a company whose goal is to make it easy for people around the world to buy, sell and manage various cryptocurrency accounts. As such you might assume it would be a pretty progressive place. But recently there has been some discontent at the company. Back in June when large tech companies were posting black squares on Facebook to show their solidarity with Black Lives Matter, Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong refused to jump on the bandwagon. And that led to a walkout at the company. Many of his engineers just refused to work because the CEO wouldn’t issue a statement of support for BLM. Eventually, Armstrong did issue a series of tweets on the topic starting with this one:
But this week Armstrong issued a memo on the divide between political activism and work. You can read the whole thing here but the gist is that he sees it as a distraction from the mission of his for-profit business.
It has become common for Silicon Valley companies to engage in a wide variety of social activism, even those unrelated to what the company does, and there are certainly employees who really want this in the company they work for. So why have we decided to take a different approach?
The reason is that while I think these efforts are well intentioned, they have the potential to destroy a lot of value at most companies, both by being a distraction, and by creating internal division. We’ve seen what internal strife at companies like Google and Facebook can do to productivity, and there are many smaller companies who have had their own challenges here. I believe most employees don’t want to work in these divisive environments. They want to work on a winning team that is united and making progress toward an important mission. They want to be respected at work, have a welcoming environment where they can contribute, and have growth opportunities. They want the workplace to be a refuge from the division that is increasingly present in the world…
We have people with many different backgrounds and viewpoints at Coinbase, and even if we all agree that something is a problem, we may not agree on how to actually go solve it. This is where there is a blurry line between moral statements and politics. We could use our work day debating what to do about various unrelated challenges in the world, but that would not be in service of the company or our own interests as employees and shareholders.
As I read it, Armstrong isn’t trying to discourage people from being activists on their own time. What he’s saying is that coinbase isn’t the place for that. At work, he wants people focused on their jobs and the company’s mission, not debating other issues. Some people, including UK programmer and venture capitalist Paul Graham responded positively:
Yet again, @brian_armstrong leads the way. I predict most successful companies will follow Coinbase's lead. If only because those who don't are less likely to succeed.https://t.co/3wKYAej7qO
— Paul Graham (@paulg) September 28, 2020
But needless to say, there are many woke progressives who are not happy at being told they can’t take over someone’s company with their activism any time they feel like it. And so you get coverage like this at the Verge, “There are many issues on which I can easily accept that a cryptocurrency exchange, or really any company, has no opinions. But during an election year in which democracy itself is at stake, and state-backed violence against protesters continues unchecked, racial justice can’t be one of them.”
Or this lecture from the San Francisco Chronicle’s business editor: “The problem, as countless people pointed out, is that this philosophy works well for people who come from the dominant culture. If you’re not white or male in tech, you start off with a disadvantage, as the industry’s continuously dismal diversity reports show.”
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey also offered his criticism saying that acknowledging societal issues impacting customers was the least coinbase should do.
#Bitcoin (aka “crypto”) is direct activism against an unverifiable and exclusionary financial system which negatively affects so much of our society. Important to at *least* acknowledge and connect the related societal issues your customers face daily. This leaves people behind: https://t.co/0LMlF1qcmG
— jack (@jack) September 30, 2020
Jessica Alter runs a tech company that supports progressive campaigns and she wasn’t happy about it either:
Stating out loud that you think economic freedom and social justice can be conveniently disconnected is the epitome of why SV has a bad reputation
— Jessica Alter (@jalter) September 29, 2020
This kind of grand unified theory of progressive activism is the gist of most of the criticism I see on Twitter and elsewhere. The idea being that you can’t take a stand on one issue and not be willing to take a stand on every other issue because all oppression is connected. That genuinely is the view of a lot of far-left activists these days which is why I think Armstrong’s refusal to go along with it irks so many people. But again, he’s not saying employees can’t spend all their free hours supporting whatever causes they feel the need to support. He’s saying that work time won’t be used to make statements or respond to whatever is in the news that week, it will be focused on the company’s already ambitious goals in one particular area that is their real focus.
One of the things mentioned in Armstrong’s memo was that people who didn’t feel comfortable working at Coinbase because of his views on limiting activism at work should think about finding a job someplace else. Toward that end, Armstrong sent an internal email offering a severance package to anyone who wanted to go. He’s literally willing to pay the woke activists to leave.
There are plenty of other tech companies in Silicon Valley that would welcome woke engineers. Better to have those people go where they are wanted than to have them stick around and badmouth the company where they work.
As the demands of woke employees on company time and resources become greater and the internal disruptions they cause become more costly (which seems inevitable), more companies may take a second look at this approach.