Why You Can’t Take Politics Out of Work

Your company is not apolitical, no matter what your CEO says

I have several jobs, and one of them is “lowly adjunct” in the graduate school of journalism at NYU, where I teach a class about digital media innovation. As part of the course, my students have to conceptualize and prototype a new media product that could be used in a journalistic or newsroom context. Its innovation might be technical, journalistic, or a new business model. The class is very entrepreneurial and involves hard business skills, but my Twitter bio just says “NYU j-school prof,” so people on the right who don’t like my politics periodically accuse me of indoctrinating journalism students into leftist groupthink or some form of Marxism that isn’t recognizable to anyone who’s read Marx. “Commie” has been invoked more than once.

As I said to one such correspondent, all of whom tend to disparage my intelligence in grammatically inexplicable ways, I don’t teach students how to do political reporting or even how to write political op-eds, which I do myself (for a living, even!). I teach them how to put together a P&L, how to determine what their minimum viable product is, how to prototype it, how to test their business models, and so on. Partisan discussions of what is and isn’t happening in the U.S. electoral cycle don’t really come up. And I find that Republicans approach media company valuations pretty much the same way Democrats do; some things are just not partisan.

But I would be lying if I said discussions were never political. And here I think it’s important to distinguish between partisanship and politics as a broader concept. The program I teach in attracts a lot of international students, and it’s very diverse, so students naturally want to know how U.S. newsrooms and media companies are structured and who has power in them. Who are the decision-makers? Are they white? Are they men? How old are they? Where did they go to school? These are inherently political questions because at base, politics is not defined by partisanship. Politics is about who has power and who doesn’t. And in America, those questions do align with particular partisan leanings but also exist and affect people whether they have strong partisan feelings or not.

A few weeks ago, Basecamp set fire to itself by demanding that employees keep their politics and societal discussions out of the workplace Slack, seemingly in response to organizational efforts by employees to ramp up diversity and inclusion efforts. Co-founder Jason Fried claimed that these discussions were a distraction and were reducing productivity. A third of the staff disagreed and quit.

I wouldn’t argue that Slack discussions never reduce productivity, but tech companies tend to be very metrics-driven, and it should be relatively easy to determine who’s underperforming, and Fried’s letter seems to insinuate that everyone was. And I find it hard to believe that everyone participating in company-wide discussions about diversity was somehow less productive for it or that questions of power that are directly relevant to an employee’s status at the company are to be avoided on a productivity basis.

But it doesn’t matter because workplaces are inherently political whether Fried (or anybody else) likes it or not. There are always power dynamics that determine how institutions operate, and in many cases, the marginalized parties look nothing like the managerial class. This is particularly true in the upper echelons of tech, where founders skew white and male and often wield degrees from elite schools.

And these power considerations apply not just to corporate structure and who gets to make decisions but also to how products get made. In my other life as a political messaging consultant, I’ve worked on attempts to ban software that the NYPD uses to identify potential gang members. The software routinely flags innocent people because racist assumptions are built into its algorithm. Black patients have been denied the health care they need because widely used decision-making software is more likely to refer white patients for customized care programs than Black patients. These are high-stakes situations where the construction of the product and its obvious flaws are partly a function of who’s building the product and making key decisions and what their own experiences of these scenarios are.

Sometimes the stakes are lower, but the design flaws are just as apparent: The first few times I did immersive VR, I was thrilled by it and also nauseated — literally. Sometimes nausea in VR is a function of frame speed: If it’s too slow, your brain thinks you’re being poisoned. But part of it, too, is that I’m a woman, and we tend to calculate distance differently than men do (shape from shading vs. motion parallax). VR companies know this now, but in 2015 or so, no one had bothered to write the user story that says, “I’m a woman, and I would like to do anything at all in an immersive experience without puking.”

Here’s another user story you never see: “I’m a bigoted asshole, and I want to make someone else’s life hell.” I thought about that one when Slack rolled out its ability to DM anyone regardless of whether they’re in the network. To its credit, it rolled it back, but I think this problem could have been avoided had Slack talked to even one woman who’s spent any time online and been on the receiving end of unsolicited messages.

At any rate, these issues, which seem very relevant to things like, oh, the success of the enterprise, could always be construed as political — because they are to some extent. That doesn’t make them unreasonable or irrelevant.

I do not believe in the idea of bringing your whole self to work. Mostly because I’m a late Gen Xer/xennial who knows the institution’s not gonna love you back and the co-founders are always more invested, literally, than you are. In my experience, any company that demands you bring 110% of yourself to the office and basically live there is also a company that will not evaluate you using rational metrics nor tolerate any part of that 110% that is inconvenient for management.

But I also don’t believe it’s possible for a company operating in the United States of America in 2021 to be apolitical. When Coinbase says it is, what it means is that its employees will trade not being able to assert their power or concerns in a corporate situation for more money or more upside.

And compensating people for a subpar work culture isn’t unusual or new. Look at investment banking, which works analysts to death while promising them astronomical earning power. People tolerate the abuse because they want what they believe the money will afford them.

Which brings us back to Coinbase and Basecamp and all of the other tech companies that are flirting with trying to impose the same restrictions on their employees.

Politics is not just about who’s in the executive office or who’s protesting what right now. It’s about power and standing in society, and the idea that those things are separable from the American workplace is a view put forth conveniently by people who monopolize that power and standing. Political structures are invisible to them because they’re at the top and they don’t look down — sometimes unintentionally, sometimes willfully.

It is an incredible privilege to view politics simply as a form of self-expression and not a fundamental state of the world that permeates every aspect of life. The people who do not feel affected by politics and believe it can be compartmentalized are people whose experience of power is that they are never impeded from attaining it based on the things about themselves they cannot change, like race, or gender, or sexual orientation.

Now politics are more front and center for a variety of reasons. Gen Z is inheriting a less stable world, and they know it. They’re politically engaged naturally and know that they have to advocate for themselves. We’re also facing a crisis of democracy that is driven by anti-majoritarian constituencies (who also skew white and male and not Gen Z), the results of which will affect their future in ways that prior generations haven’t experienced. They are less likely to tolerate being told to put their heads down and ignore the wider implications. They can’t.

I read Rework when it came out, by the way, and I thought it was great — in part because it nicely articulated the ways in which work can be stupid and dehumanizing and needlessly so. The authors also seemed to disdain the infantilization of workers and users that’s particularly endemic to the industry. (We’ll ply you with toys to distract you from the fact that we’re cannibalizing your every waking hour.)

But you’d think that would make them more aware of the fact that just telling people to ignore their own concerns about equity in a workplace context is a different kind of infantilization. It’s one that says, “We know what’s best for you, or we wouldn’t be in power ourselves”—a convenient lie betrayed every day by demonstrably incompetent executives who continue to get funded.

Political theorist Corey Robin describes conservatism in his book, The Reactionary Mind, as “a meditation on — and theoretical rendition of — the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.” The CEOs who are so determined to give their companies the veneer of being apolitical (because they cannot achieve it in substance by definition; they can only shut down conversations about it) probably don’t think of themselves as conservative or reactionary, but they are, at least in this respect. Even if they’re not running corporate feudal states, which some of them wouldn’t mind doing, any discussion of equity (both in the agency sense and the stock options sense) necessitates an acknowledgment of how the power structure currently works and how it might be flawed. These are inconvenient conversations for people who already have power and don’t have to fight for it.

But they are inevitable. Founders have two options: the Coinbase and Goldman Sachs route, where you just compensate people so well that they just tacitly agree to pretend these considerations don’t matter. Or you stop pretending that political conflicts at your company are about superficial partisan considerations and not standing and power, generally, and address them.

It’s easy to distort these questions of power by reframing them as surface-level self-expression. I’ve seen at least one tech executive refer to employees advocating for themselves as “political activism on the company dime,” which really exposes the whole game. If any assertion of power or agency by an employee is de facto political activism, then there’s not much that can happen with regard to determining equity that isn’t “political.”

And to be fair, advocating for yourself in your own company should not be political, but it is. People who are not on the top of the power heap know that they’ll be viewed that way when they protest unfair treatment or expose the ways in which the supposed meritocracy isn’t one.

To the extent that this bleeds into actual partisan politics and activism, it’s a function of ideological alignment: We have one group of people who believe that the status quo is reflective of excellence (see, nearly every founder and investor in tech who believes white male domination of the industry is a function of innate ability and not self-reinforcing screening mechanisms like “culture fit”) and another group who believe that the status quo is capable of producing excellence but also produces mediocrity and sometimes harm and is often determined by the whims of people whose success has little to do with their abilities.

You can probably guess who lines up where.

Recurring disclosure feature: I dislike infantilizing employees, and I also dislike infantilizing readers. Nick Denton and I used to have a recurring argument about how much context a reader needed in a post and this resulted in Nick insisting that literally every proper noun be prefaced with the person’s title or significance. Which is sometimes reasonable, but I nearly lost it when I had to correct “George W. Bush” to “President of the United States George W. Bush.” So apologies if you sometimes have to google some names in My New Band Is. I’m liberating myself from the context absolutists.

This column was originally published on My New Band Is.

Writer, adjunct in the grad school of journalism at NYU, political messaging consultant, ex-editor in chief of The New York Observer, founding editor of Gawker

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