Can a company really be ‘apolitical’ in 2020?

In a year where social consciousness has fueled an increase in corporate and employee activism, can a company such as Coinbase just opt out?

Can a company really be ‘apolitical’ in 2020?
[Photo: Tim Mossholder/Unsplash]

Last week Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong sent shock waves through the tech sector with a blog post, “Coinbase is a mission focused company.” In the post, he wrote that he wants the digital currency exchange to be “laser-focused on achieving its mission” and that he believes this requires shifting away from engaging in social activism, externally and internally.


“While I think these [social activism] 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,” Armstrong wrote. “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.”

In the same post, he noted that some employees may not agree with this direction. “Life is too short to work at a company that you are not excited about,” wrote Armstrong. (Soon after, the company took things further, announcing a severance package for any employee who didn’t agree with the direction the company was going in.)

The post was widely seen as an opening salvo of executives pushing against the rising tide of social activism in 2020. The ripples of this announcement reverberated across Silicon Valley and social media as supporters and critics responded.

While the announcement was heralded by some in the VC community, who lauded the move as a necessary step to keep employees focused on driving business outcomes, others viewed it as an abdication of the need to take a stand against social injustice and a pushback on the momentum of companies taking explicit stances on racism and social injustice.

The reaction from HR leaders was similarly mixed. Some viewed the move as a clear move to help Coinbase recruit and retain employees who want to work for a company free of political discourse. Others saw it running counter to the momentum of building more equitable companies and in conflict with the desires of many younger employees to work for more socially conscious organizations.


Humu CEO and cofounder Laszlo Bock took to Marker in a post coauthored with head of content Liz Fosslien to push against the notion of a politics-free office. They make a case that asking employees to suppress emotions and views in a climate including a global pandemic, a brighter spotlight on racial injustice, record unemployment, wildfires, and natural disasters is not just impossible—it’s cruel.

“By mandating that employees keep politics, activism, and their personal beliefs completely out of the workplace, leaders ensure that many people, particularly members of historically underrepresented groups, silently bear a tremendous emotional weight,” they wrote.

Additionally, some in the crypto space, including Twitter and Square founder Jack Dorsey, felt the move was in direct conflict with the libertarian spirit of digital currencies. Cryptocurrency itself is inherently political, as it’s aimed at changing the financial system. Coinbase’s stance is not to be “apolitical” in a purist sense, but to limit political activism to issues specifically related to crypto, said Armstrong in response to Dorsey’s comment.

From an HR and people perspective, it’s likely this announcement will cost them candidates, while also solidifying their standing with those who are attracted to the idea of keeping political discourse outside the workplace. By presenting a clear view of what will be expected, Coinbase is allowing prospects to make more informed decisions about how they opt in or out of that environment, HR Futures principal Steve McElfresh told me.


“Cultural clarity is valuable,” said McElfresh. “There is little doubt that Coinbase’s stance is not attractive to many people. It doesn’t need to be. A good employee value proposition is one that is not similar to most other companies. It should reflect who you are uniquely, at a fundamental level. If with that you can be the right place for enough good people, being distinctive is of considerable value in attraction and retention.”

But however you feel about Armstrong’s decision, how practical is it? In a world where the boundaries between “work” and “life” are increasingly translucent, is it possible to separate the two? And how can a people team execute and support this mission? For those answers, I wanted to get the perspective of Coinbase’s own chief people officer, L.J. Brock. We recently discussed his views on my podcast, Redefining HR.

Lars Schmidt: What are the practical implications of this decision for employees and how will the people team manage internal discourse on a day-to-day basis?

L.J. Brock: We don’t expect this decision to change much about day-to-day life at Coinbase for most employees. The goal of this communication was to set clear expectations around the fact that we will be intentional about our culture and ensure the company is on the same page going forward.

For example, we wanted to be clear that the company will not make external statements about issues that are unrelated to our mission. We will, however, focus more narrowly on delivering against the company’s mission and making Coinbase an outstanding environment for anyone to work toward that shared goal.

LS: What do you say to employees or prospective hires who interpret the message that Coinbase doesn’t have a stance on “causes unrelated to the core mission” as an abdication of support for those who feel marginalized, threatened, or unsafe by the status quo?


LJB: Let me be absolutely clear: Focusing on our mission should not be confused for accepting intolerant behavior. We are committed to a safe and inclusive workplace for everyone inside Coinbase. We believe that we should be laser-focused on what we can control, and, within our walls, we will focus on creating a great environment that allows underrepresented minorities to thrive and succeed.

Beyond that, Coinbase has the potential to make a meaningful difference in the world by focusing on our mission of building a more open financial system and expanding economic freedom.

LS: From a people/HR perspective, how do you enforce this? Meaning, who determines what type of internal dialog is considered activism?

LJB: Our primary aim is to provide guidelines that help employees navigate these new expectations. Generally speaking, we look at internal discussion against a framework of time, manner, and place. “Is this the right time, the right manner, and the right place to have this conversation?” While we won’t be able to articulate rules for every hypothetical situation, we want to default to trust, offer guidelines, and then support our employees as they adapt to this new norm. Our goal is not to look for violations, but to create clarity around the cultural expectations and to help people operate successfully within those expectations.

LS: How does this approach impact your ability to sync this with your stated commitment to inclusion and belonging and create a space where all employees feel like they belong and will be seen and supported by the company?

LJB: First and foremost, our biggest priority will always be taking care of our employees. We know that Coinbase employees will have to deal with challenging issues at times, and, when they do, we will have the focus and infrastructure to support them through those times.


LS: How do you expect this to impact your recruiting?

LJB: I believe when you’re focused on being honest and transparent, and when you’re focused on making sure the brand promise matches the brand experience, it will work out well over the long term. We have a lot of commitments to deliver on inside Coinbase, but I believe a lot of people want to work at a mission-focused company where they can be united in delivering against that mission.

If you want to listen to our full conversation, you can hear and download the episode below: 

About the author

Lars Schmidt is the founder of Amplify, an HR executive search and consulting firm that helps companies like Hootsuite, NPR, and SpaceX navigate the future of work. He is also the cofounder of the HR Open Source initiative.