Should the Professional Be Political?

A Silicon Valley controversy raises questions about the role of activism in the workplace.

An illustration of a mug reading "World's Best Boss" with "Black Lives Matter," "No Justice, No Peace," and "Fix the System" signs inside it
Shutterstock / The Atlantic

Updated at 1:59 p.m. ET on October 28, 2020.

Last month, Brian Armstrong, the CEO of the cryptocurrency platform Coinbase, observed that although many Silicon Valley companies engage in wide-ranging social activism unrelated to their core businesses, his firm would move away from that approach. “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,” he wrote, citing internal strife at Google, Facebook, and beyond. “I believe most employees don’t want to work in these divisive environments.”

Going forward, he announced, Coinbase would still engage in political activism related to cryptocurrency and the new global financial system it hopes to create. But employees at Coinbase should not engage in activism or debates about other causes or politicians while at work or expect the company to represent their personal beliefs externally. Armstrong granted that for some, “working at an activism-focused company may be core to what they want,” and gave such employees at Coinbase a chance to accept severance of four to six months’ pay––or to stay and commit to making the new approach work. About 60 employees, or 5 percent, took the payout.

The Coinbase decision captured the attention of CEOs, tech workers, and members of the media who are asking themselves a timely question: What role, if any, should political activism play in the workplace? If Coinbase’s approach doesn’t lead to a staff exodus or legal setbacks or some other unforeseen harm, it is likely to be adopted at other companies––probably for the better––because it is well suited to helping workplaces stay diverse and inclusive in a polarized moment.

Observers who have commented on the Coinbase story inside and outside the company don’t merely disagree about its approach. They differ on how to understand what happened and what is at stake.

Some regard the Coinbase memo as a basically earnest document. The CEO saw activism roiling workplaces, including his own, thought about how companies should respond, and concluded that activism-focused companies are needlessly divisive––“divisive,” in Armstrong’s telling, because “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”; needlessly so because he believes politicized workplaces don’t actually effect change. Change happens “only when a smart, talented, group of people come together to focus on a hard problem for a decade or more,” Armstrong argued. “Many companies never stand the test of time, because they decide to dabble in unrelated efforts, and distract and divide their workforce in the process. Paradoxically, by being laser focused on our mission, we will likely have an even greater impact.” The cryptocurrency investor Ari Paul later endorsed this narrative, declaring on Twitter, “The more I think about Coinbase/Armstrong’s move to be apolitical as a firm, the more I like it. I believe strongly in social action, but so little of the time we spend getting agitated about these things is productive. Debates about social justice rarely increase it.”

In a slightly more cynical telling, however, Armstrong isn’t being apolitical so much as trying to please the constituency most integral to his company’s success. A cryptocurrency platform is likely to have more than its share of anarcho-capitalist and libertarian-leaning staffers and customers. “Coinbase is effectively making a bid for this slice of the Silicon Valley workforce,” the journalist Timothy Lee argued at Ars Technica. This makes sense if you believe that just as Americans might seek to marry and live among people with similar ideological orientations, tech workers with options will increasingly seek to work beside the politically like-minded. If so, Coinbase got a head start on ideologically assortative co-working, hastening the exodus of the progressives least tolerant of diverse co-workers while signaling to the “Grey Tribe that it is safe at Coinbase.

In the least charitable narrative, Coinbase proved that it is a malign force controlled by racists or reactionaries or bourgeois enemies of the revolution. According to Wired, George Floyd’s death prompted debate within the company about whether its CEO should put out a public statement about Black Lives Matter. Armstrong listened to the views of employees in all-hands meetings but stopped short of making a decision, saying he personally believes that “Black lives matter” but that he had to study whether an official Coinbase statement using that language would imply that the company was endorsing the Black Lives Matter political organization or specific policies such as defunding the police. In response, some Coinbase employees posted Black Lives Matter in Slack channels and encouraged a work stoppage. Within hours, Armstrong had steered the conversation to Twitter. “He wrote the words ‘Black Lives Matter,’ reiterated his support for Black employees at the company, and announced plans for Coinbase to donate to causes chosen by staff,” Wired reported. Later, external critics seized on Armstrong’s initial hesitancy to paint his “no activism” memo as an implicit rejection of racial justice. Mallory Greene, the CEO of a funeral-services company, wrote that “human rights are not something you remain neutral on. You either choose to be actively anti-racist, or you are complicit in racism. There’s no middle ground.” The technology journalist Sarah Lacy tweeted that Coinbase treated Black Lives Matter as “a radical activist issue,” contemptuously adding that “I have plenty of friends in the south less racist than those guys.” (She did not appear to be basing that opinion on original reporting.)

In The Washington Post, the tech and culture writer Nitasha Tiku included Coinbase’s actions in a column about what she sees as “an increasingly public reactionary streak in Silicon Valley.” The column quoted Jill Carlson, an investor who focuses on cryptocurrency, stating, “Not clear to me if I am paranoid or correct in re-reading the last 6 months of Silicon Valley thought leadership as being riddled with anti-woke dog whistles.” Mimi Fox Melton, the acting CEO of a nonprofit group working to improve racial diversity in tech, told the columnist that she supported Coinbase’s transparency, but that “this new movement is not about woke culture. It’s about self advocacy and arranging for a healthy workplace. When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” The former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo offered the most extreme reaction to the Coinbase memo: He imagined a scenario in which its leadership is murdered. “Me-first capitalists who think you can separate society from business are going to be the first people lined up against the wall and shot in the revolution,” he tweeted. “I’ll happily provide video commentary.”

In yet another telling, the memo is most noteworthy as a blueprint for how companies can defend liberal norms against hostile takeovers by small but savvy factions of radicals. These observers see attacks on Coinbase as part of a pernicious pattern: A company is confronted with untenable demands, stops short of wholly meeting them, and is punished by activist journalists and social-media demagogues who defame its leaders as racists, bigots, or reactionaries––words that retain the stigma of their old meanings even as they’re promiscuously redefined.

Tiku alluded to this point of view in her Post column, reporting that “some libertarian, centrist and right-leaning Silicon Valley investors and executives, who wield outsize influence, power and access to capital, describe tech culture as under siege by activist employees pushing a social justice agenda.” Many critics of “woke” activism would clarify that they don’t object to “social justice” properly understood, but to illiberalism justified in the guise of social justice; to intolerance of ideological diversity; and to bad actors who gain and wield power by manipulating America’s thankfully widespread opposition to racism, sexism, and bigotry.

The Coinbase drama revolves around two issues: the narrow one of whether a company should issue a Black Lives Matter statement, and the general one of whether a company should permit or even encourage political activism.

On the narrow question, as a Coinbase engineer told Wired, “a lot of people feel that saying Black lives matter is an ethical statement. They feel it should be an easy thing to say.” Why won’t all companies just go along? I can think of a few possible justifications for hesitating, as Coinbase did, or staying silent, as other companies have.

Such a statement might be attacked for imperfections, no matter how well intentioned, arguably upsetting more people than were heartened, and sometimes leading to calls for resignations at the top. Imagine that a CEO is asked to put out a statement declaring that “Black lives matter” by stakeholders who question how any decent person could disagree with self-evidently true words––words that merely affirm the common worth, dignity, and humanity of Black people. If she complies, however, activists might use that statement as leverage: They might publicly muse about whether the CEO truly believes that Black lives matter or just declared as much to “perform allyship.” To prove she is not exploiting the Movement for Black Lives while doing nothing to advance it, like a racist, the CEO must accede to new demands that might not be uncontroversially correct or broadly supported.

Company leaders might also worry about precedent. If they could issue a single statement affirming that “Black lives matter,” that would be fine. But what if that statement led to a demand to embrace controversial parts of the Black Lives Matter agenda? Or if the murder of a Bay Area police officer then prompted an employee with a son in law enforcement to demand a statement that says “Blue lives matter”? Or if an employee with a son who has Down syndrome asked for a statement against selective abortion? Or if a Uighur employee asks for a statement acknowledging China’s efforts to put Muslims in concentration camps, a statement that upsets a cohort of Chinese employees? Or if a Palestinian employee touched off an internal workplace debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? These slippery-slope concerns are inherently speculative, but that doesn’t make them irrational. Leaders might gamble that they’re better off upsetting their employees once with a norm against statements than offending them with a particular statement, or non-statement, in the future.

If I were a CEO, I’d gladly declare publicly that “Black lives matter,” and urge reform of all police departments that fail to adequately protect the inalienable right to life. But the aforementioned concerns help explain why some company leaders, even those not opposed to the movement, might hesitate or decline to issue blandly supportive statements.

As for that more general issue raised by the Coinbase controversy: The strong argument for permitting political discussion in the workplace, regardless of what a company says externally, is that the United States depends on civically engaged citizens––and Americans spend so much time at work that banning politics there might harm the polity. And in a highly tolerant, live-and-let-live Silicon Valley, an opine-and-let-others-opine workplace ethos could prevail.

But tech activists and their allies in journalism are not trying to conserve or create inclusive, diverse, pluralistic corporate cultures where all are invited to “bring your whole self to work.” They are seeking to empower their allies to push a highly particular agenda in the workplace while urging management to suppress or punish others for expressing opposing views.

Brendan Eich was forced to step down as the CEO of Mozilla when its employees objected to a political donation that he made (six years earlier) to a California ballot initiative against same-sex marriage. When James Damore circulated a memo about why gender disparities exist at Google and how to decrease them––in part, he believes that women tend to like working with people more than men, and that female representation at Google could be improved by making software engineering roles “more people-oriented with pair programming and more collaboration” and implementing managerial changes that would “allow those exhibiting cooperative behavior to thrive”––offended co-workers called for his termination. CEO Sundar Pichai complied, asserting that “portions of the memo violate our Code of Conduct and cross the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.” The Wall Street Journal reported that a different Google employee was pilloried by colleagues after suggesting that the company should be race- and gender-blind in hiring. At Spotify, which owns exclusive rights to Joe Rogan’s podcast, some employees want certain archival episodes censored.

Last year, Fast Company summarized a poll of tech workers conducted by Morning Consult and sponsored by the Lincoln Network, a non-partisan, center-right 501c3, reporting that “nearly half of employees at companies with political agendas said their ideological views impacted their ability to work.”* Companies perceived to have a liberal agenda were more common than those perceived to have a conservative agenda. And “at companies perceived to have a political agenda, 63% of workers said that ridicule in the workplace is commonplace if you disagree with a colleague, while only 21% said that happens at their apolitical companies.”

More worrisome than attacks on any particular viewpoint is how fast new taboos are emerging. The ground of what’s acceptable shifts so quickly that many people self-censor because they fear “cancellation” but don’t know what might trigger it. I’m a longtime proponent of police reform who has publicly praised the Campaign Zero agenda put forth by Black Lives Matter. I also believe Black Lives Matter calls to defund the police would result in more Black people being unjustly killed. Could I say that at Google or Spotify without hurting my career? I don’t know. At times, activists pressure even folks who merely want to remain silent about their politics. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, summarizing an ascendant ethos, put it this way: “Being silent is being complicit.”

In my ideal corporate culture, progressives would be free to discuss and at times advance their values at work––as would liberals, centrists, libertarians, and conservatives. But so long as any faction refuses to tolerate views held by many of their co-workers, to the point of agitating for terminations, politicking at work will be unconstructive, untenable for all but the least diverse companies, and likely to fuel polarization. Although Armstrong might not have pivoted Coinbase toward the ideal workplace, his decision was not unreasonable. He may well have hit upon the most inclusive approach that’s presently viable.

*A previous version of this story characterized the Lincoln Network as anti-Trump. The nonprofit does not support or oppose candidates for elected office.