Coinbase is off base: the joys of politics at work

Ah, politics and business. Delicious.

A tech CEO wants to keep politics out of his workplace. That always goes over well.

Coinbase wants to build an “open financial system” that would let anyone access cryptocurrencies, bringing “economic freedom” to the world in the process. Brian Armstrong, co-founder and CEO of Coinbase, wants to keep politics out of the workplace so everyone can stay focused on the task at hand without potential division. He described his rationale in a memo on the company’s blog, supposedly in response to an employee walkout over the company’s decision to not issue a statement after the murder of George Floyd.

The memo itself is unconvincing for a few reasons:

  1. It’s not as profound as it pretends to be.
  2. It has a useless graphic masquerading as a map of global economic freedom, but it doesn’t have a key so it’s just an oddly coloured map.
  3. Armstrong never defines economic freedom despite it being his company’s mission.
  4. It seems to rest on the assumption that all his staff lack the emotional maturity to disagree with a colleague’s world view but continue to work with them amicably.

But, worst of all, it wraps up what is, really, a dully pragmatic allocation of resources – “Coinbase isn’t going to advocate, externally, for any issues outside our remit” – into a political statement. All while trying to gloss over the obvious: the work they’re doing has actual political ramifications.

Bad politics

Can Duruk, writing for The Margins, sums it up well:

Suppose I am entirely wrong, and Coinbase is actually about creating an open financial system for the world. In that case, it’s almost farcical to argue that the company that’s now sitting at the center of this new system would not be involved in practically every single political decision in the world.

It goes without saying the main political ideology behind most things crypto is libertarianism and this memo barely hides its author’s leanings. While I don’t generally have favorable opinions of libertarianism, I do respect their proponents’ staunch desire to be wrong at every turn about how humans operate in the real world. What I can’t really handle, however, is veiling one’s own political goals of rebuilding the entire world order, regardless of its plausibility or feasibility and then pretending there’s nothing political about it.

The work is innately political. You can’t around that.

It’s disingenuous to say that employees can only talk about the company’s mission when that mission is economic freedom, even if that freedom is to be achieved or helped with “infrastructure for the cryptoeconomy”. You don’t get to hire intelligent, thoughtful people and then say “nah” when their thoughts walk away from your guardrails.

Especially when your company has benefited from people getting extracurricular at work. Here are two of the ways Coinbase is achieving it’s mission:

Source amazing talent: We create job opportunities for top people, including those from underrepresented backgrounds who don’t have equal access to opportunities, with things like diverse slates (Rooney rule) on senior hires, and casting a wide net to find top talent.

Fair talent practices: We work to reduce unconscious bias in interviews, using things like structured interviews, and ensure fair practices in how we pay and promote.

Awareness of things like the importance of diversity at work and the value of unconscious bias have come from people talking about politics at work, even if they’re not working at a recruitment company (where that would be “the mission”).

Never mind that these approaches are reflected in the mission of Black Lives Matter (the inciting incident of all this): BLM is, in part, about structural racism, which is baked into things like unconscious bias. If people within Coinbase were frustrated by the company not wanting to release a statement about the movement, then the problem isn’t politics.

Signaling is a virtue

That said, there’s value to what Armstrong is doing (even if I think he’s done it poorly). Companies can paint themselves into corners if they don’t think through the longterm effects of their choices and that includes political ones. They need to signal intent here as much as possible, if for no other reason than to let employees make an informed decision about how and where they work.

Ben Thompson, in a recent post on Stratechery [$], talks about a years-old decision to not put R. Kelly’s music into playlists is having ramifications for them now that they’re the exclusive publisher of Joe Rogan’s podcast. They set a precedent with Kelly that employees think is being ignored for Rogan.

Thompson:

The Spotify point is precisely why I think Armstrong deserves more credit than his (many) critics on Twitter are giving him. Leaving aside the rightness or wrongness of his policy, every CEO should be thinking through these questions before they come to the forefront, and making clear to employees exactly how the company is going to approach them. Look no further than Ek and Spotify to see how making decisions in the moment, without a long-term view, can result in long-term problems.

But, really, this is a resources problem, not a “politics in the workplace“ problem. By making it about politics, and by turning it into a public statement, Armstrong has both misread the issue and misread the room.