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Nov 25, 2020
This article is part of a series called Branding.

In the hyper-tense and increasingly political world we live in, it’s no secret that many organizations are taking strong stances on a number of different social issues. From companies like Patagonia to Nike to Ben & Jerry’s, businesses and their leaders have been fearless in actively promoting and pursuing a higher purpose in society that extends far beyond making a profit. 

Championing a strong, ethical opinion is an incredibly profound way to rally employees and embed a deeper sense of purpose and belonging within the workplace. This is especially true when a mission or cause aligns with your company’s vision. 

It’s amidst this backdrop of activity that Coinbase’s CEO, Brian Armstrong, recently made headlines for all the wrong reasons. Not long ago, Armstrong published a controversial blog post on his company’s website that sparked fierce debate among employees, crypto enthusiasts, and the wider business community itself. He presented his view on how Coinbase should respond to today’s charged political atmosphere, explaining that his company will refrain from addressing broader societal issues, limit non-profit work to just 1% of corporate efforts, and never advocate for specific political causes or beliefs. 

I’m not saying that taking an apolitical stance is inherently wrong or bad. But there are serious ramifications to the way Armstrong handled this approach from a leadership and employee experience perspective — the consequences of which could impact Coinbase’s employer brand for years to come. 

Let’s take a closer look at why this move backfired, assess its impact on Coinbase’s future ability to attract talent, and demonstrate why it’s so important for leadership to drive inclusion from the top down. 

Coinbase’s Apolitical Stance

Since the announcement of Coinbase’s updated apolitical mission statement, more than 60 people from its 1,200-person staff have left the organization and accepted a severance package.To facilitate this, the company set a deadline for employees to signal their interest in accepting the package, which means the number of resignations will likely increase. 

One engineer, speaking on condition of anonymity to Coindesk, said, “There’s not been any real clarity… No one in leadership seems to be able to define [this apolitical stance] since they’re in the same boat as the rest of the employees, trying to pull meaning from Brian’s limited statements.”

This feeling of confusion and lack of clarity among employees stems from two core issues:

  1. Armstrong’s failure to understand what inclusivity really means 
  2. Leadership own lack of clarity or alignment on the issue, which causes internal fracturing and general unease 

The problem isn’t that the company has decided to be apolitical. After all, it’s possible for an organization to be apolitical and inclusively respectful of its people. Rather, difficulties arise when organizations begin to marginalize and divide employees. We can break down this line of thought as follows:

  • Apolitical and inclusively respectful = positive energy (YES)
  • Political and inclusively respectful = positive energy (YES)
  • Apolitical and marginalizing or divisive = negative energy (NO)
  • Political and marginalizing or divisive = negative energy (NO)

By offering severance packages to anyone who disagrees with the apolitical stance, Armstrong is sending a clear message: If you don’t share our opinion, then you’re free to leave. It’s not a forced removal. No one is coming up to staff and kicking them out for having certain beliefs. But the writing is certainly on the wall for anyone who feels strongly about socio-political issues.

If Armstrong believes that he can build a more cohesive workforce by creating a team of like-minded people, then his strategy and execution is certainly misguided and naive. In fact, promoting a single-minded viewpoint and encouraging all staff to keep their opinions to themselves is incredibly detrimental to diversity of thought and damaging to innovation and culture. 

The irony, of course, is that by taking an apolitical stance, Armstrong has thrown Coinbase into the activist spotlight. His poorly executed decision comes across less as a way to galvanize staff and more as a cheap and divisive publicity stunt. 

The Damaging Impact

Coinbase’s poorly executed approach to become apolitical has actually marginalized employees and shackled diversity. So what might this mean for the future of its talent acquisition and employer brand strategies? All of the following are real possibilities:

  • Talent attraction could suffer. Top talent will potentially see this move as stifling to diversity, creativity, and personal expression. As more employees leave, this will cause a greater friction within the organization and damage the reputation of the company. It only takes a few terrible reviews on Glassdoor to put off someone from applying for good. 
  • Employee experience and culture could suffer. A majority of employees who took the severance package have been engineers. I would assume these individuals have options for employment elsewhere, which means it’s likely that some people are staying at the company out of fear of not being able to land another job in a timely fashion. This type of environment can lead to demotivation, polarization, and a lack of productivity. Consequently, it’s highly likely the employee experience and culture will suffer.
  • Diversity and inclusion initiatives could suffer. The PR noise and reputational damage from this move could especially seriously hinder the company’s diversity hiring efforts. After all, who wants to join an organization where everyone is told to keep their opinions to themselves and carefully toe the party line? 

The Role of Leadership in Driving Inclusion

It’s a sign of weakness to be overly concerned about your employees’ opinions and beliefs, particularly when they’re fighting for something worthwhile. The strong alternative to this approach is actually to listen and figure out what employees stand for. By listening and learning, you can take these unifying truths and use them to galvanize and attract people in a positive way.

To do this, however, leadership must take an active role in bringing about transformational change. If leadership doesn’t buy into the vision of inclusion, then nothing will change. 

It starts with a commitment to equity and inclusion by design at the very foundation of the organization — not as a peripheral, strategic initiative that takes place after key cultural and employee experience parameters have been planned and activated. And so leaders must take the time to educate themselves on what inclusion really means, as well as to understand the different facets of inclusion that can negatively impact how an individual feels. 

Regardless of how “nice” people are and how “friendly” the culture may seem, there is an awful lot more to genuine inclusivity than most people realize. Microaggression, bigotry, and discrimination can exist in any culture, and these are often based on nothing more than naivety, lack of awareness, and poor education. Conventional thinking might say, “People understand each other,” “They don’t mean any harm,” or “it’s just a joke,” but settling for this is no longer good enough. And it probably never was.

Having the awareness, sensitivity, and empathy to stand up to these experiences is only possible with a leadership team that is enlightened and awake to the realities of workplace dynamics. Leaders need to learn, to care, and to design practices that bring about actual change. They must:

  • Commit to learning and understanding 
  • Proactively champion the right behaviors
  • Lead by example
  • Create positive competition around the new compliance
  • Challenge old behaviors and have the conviction not to tolerate or ignore bad ones
  • Hold people accountable to complete the work required to change
  • Empower others to do all of the above 

When leaders are properly aligned and invested, then this sets the foundation for real, effective change. It is the pivotal difference between saying and doing

Finally, again, there’s nothing wrong with having conviction as a leader (which Armstrong certainly has). But if you’re doing something solely for financial reasons, then it’s naive to think your people will stand by you for it. At the end of the day, your organization doesn’t need to be political. But if you’re not going to be, then you better make sure your company is grounded in a foundation that puts its people first.

This article is part of a series called Branding.
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