Speak no evil, see no evil: The importance of talking ‘politics’ at work

    May 17, 2021
    Anti-Black Racism Protestors

    OTTAWA—The old adage that one shouldn’t talk politics at work is yet another measure of professionalism that shapes company culture and can leave the most educated employees ignorant of the context of the world around them.

    Nearly a year after organizations wrote their pithy Black Lives Matter statements, many struggle with talking about racism with their employees. These discourses are a necessary component of tackling discrimination in the workplace, which every decision-maker swears is absent at their organization. (Naturally, these statements have been made by people who will never experience racism and have benefitted from Canada’s structures and systems of white supremacy, but nevertheless feel entitled to determine what is and isn’t racism.) As Global News reported, “About 40 per cent of those who said they experienced racism told surveyors that it happened at work, making it one of the most common places to face discrimination.”

    And that’s only the tip of the iceberg: microaggressions, hiring and promotion disparities, assignment or project disparities (in terms of which projects/assignments are given to whom), racial differences in the rates of admonishment and punishment, who is mentored and groomed for higher positions, and who is left in employment pools versus who is chosen for a position are examples of the insidious nature of workplace racism. And these data are often shared anecdotally, within subgroups in the workplace. Continuing with Global News reported, “Even if racist comments were not made directly to you, it’s important to ask whether people of colour are being promoted or receive the same pay as white people in a workplace.”

    If people are forced to experience discrimination in the workplace, they should have the right—without reprisal—to talk about the politics surrounding that discrimination. Otherwise, that workplace is supporting white supremacy under the guise of “professionalism.”

    Too bad Basecamp learned this lesson too late.

    Late last month, the tech company became the poster child of the accepted wisdom of not talking about politics at work backfiring. Writing for The Verge, Casey Newton explains the idiotic situation Basecamp finds itself in: “After a controversial blog post in which CEO Jason Fried outlined Basecamp’s new philosophy that prohibited, among other things, ‘societal and political discussions’ on internal forums, company co-founder David Heinemeier Hansson said the company would offer generous severance packages to anyone who disagreed with the new stance. On Friday, it appears a large number of Basecamp employees are taking Hansson up on his offer … roughly a third of the company’s 57 employees accepted buyouts today.”

    Welp. Talk about pissing in the wind.

    The original motivation for the political speech admonishment stemmed from employees who were offended over “a controversial list of ‘funny names’ of Basecamp customers. Several of the names on the list, which resurfaced several times over the years and of which management was well aware, were of Asian or African origin. Employees considered their inclusion inappropriate at best, and racist at worst.”

    Imagine being a customer who buys products/services from Basecamp and having employees (most likely white) make fun of your “ethnic” name behind your back. It’s unconscionable, but as usual, the victims of white supremacy are rebuked. This is what workplace discrimination looks like. Subtle discrimination is a feature, not a bug, of company culture. The move by the company’s executive team amounts to silencing voices on difficult conversations deemed too sensitive because they make those in charge uncomfortable. White fragility, indeed. It wouldn’t be surprising to hear subsequent accusations of discrimination from staff; in fact, it should be expected.

    The important questions are: what is political and who gets to define it?

    COVID-19 is an all-encompassing threat the global community has been living with for the past year and, yes, it is political. Does that mean we don’t talk about it or how it affects other communities differently at work because it’s “too political”? According to the rules set out by the CEO of Basecamp, his employees shouldn’t be talking about anything COVID-related.

    In addition, what is and isn’t political differs for different groups of people. For Black women, our hair and how we wear it is political, considering we suffer microaggressions and discrimination in the workplace because of the difference in our hair texture.

    The personal is political, and there are generations (Millennials and Generation Z) in the workplace who are used to open political discussions, sharing their political thoughts across social media platforms, and attending protests. As Refinery29 reports, “preliminary data does suggest that millennials are different from previous generations on ‘what they expect from workplaces and their ideas about race, gender, and equality.’” And even more so with Gen-Z. In the event of a post-pandemic economic boom, good luck to any organization holding onto arcane and discriminatory ideas of “professionalism” in hiring and retaining anyone younger than a demi-centenarian.

    Erica Ifill is a co-host of the Bad+Bitchy podcast.