Saunders: Tech geeks should leave diversity issues to HR

Employees at tech firm who were pushing equity issues left a rift and departures in their wake.

By Debra J. Saunders / syndicated columnist

The same tactics used to suppress dissent in academia — with the goal of making colleges “safe spaces” that feel “welcoming” to snowflakes — have graduated to the tech world.

Fortunately, rather than let activists do to their startups what they did to academia, some CEOs are fighting back.

This episode begins when a new employee at Basecamp, a Chicago-based software firm, formed a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI, as it is known) committee to improve workplace diversity.

In short order, the atmosphere at Basecamp became so toxic that management told staff to stop pushing their politics at work.

“No more societal and political discussions on our company Basecamp account,” CEO Jason Fried announced in a blog post. “It’s a major distraction. It saps our energy, and redirects our dialogue toward dark places.”

The Verge’s Casey Newton reported that a third of Basecamp’s roughly 58 employees planned to quit.

The committee then went back in time; to a list started more than a decade ago by customer service workers who found some client names funny. They were the kinds of names, like Mike Rotch, a Basecamper told Newton, that Bart Simpson might use to make prank calls.

Some names were American or European; others were Asian or African. “What once had felt like an innocent way to blow off steam, amid the ongoing cultural reckoning over speech and corporate responsibility, increasingly looked inappropriate, and often racist,” Newton wrote.

The DEI crew demanded a reckoning. Two employees posted an apology for their contribution to the list; it came with an image of the Anti-Defamation League “pyramid of hate” which illustrates how unchecked, biased behavior, including insensitive remarks, can lead to violence, even genocide.

I guess you had to be there, because in the real world a moldy list of names a 13-year-old would find funny does not belong on the same page as mass murder. Period.

From what I’ve seen in the tech world, there’s no shortage of swaggering men who might benefit from being taken down a notch or two, and many of these shops could use different voices. But you don’t make your office “welcoming” by shaming your colleagues for a lame old prank. It makes it look as if you cannot find real injustice.

Having done the right thing but spooked by the publicity, Fried called an all-hands meeting on Zoom and apologized for mangling the rollout.

Big mistake. On the call, head of strategy Ryan Singer challenged a DEI booster’s assertion that we live in a white supremacist culture. Singer promptly was suspended and put under investigation.

Later, Singer resigned; probably because he didn’t want to work in a place where you can’t say America isn’t all a racist country. By that standard, Vice President Kamala Harris couldn’t work at Basecamp.

Irony is dead. The diversity mob kicked out the one guy who thinks differently. They don’t want diversity. They want people who may look different but think just like them.

So, kudos to Basecamp for announcing it will return DEI to human resources, where it belongs. Amateur hour is over.

Some who participated in the call told Newton they were so upset that they were crying and screaming at their screens.

I could go on about how coddled tech workers make more money than waitresses and enjoy benefits not seen on the factory floor; so, yes, they look a tad out of touch with the proletariat on this one.

No doubt they meant well and started with legitimate goals about improving the workforce. But then it turned ugly. When adults tried to explain how grown-ups work, they proclaimed themselves as victims.

From the outside, they look crybabies.

Maybe Basecamp is not the place for them. But if they are truly interested in working in a melting pot with people from different backgrounds and levels of education, if they seek a place committed to helping ethnic minorities and women move up the ladder, then they’ve had the answer before them all this time. They can join the military.

Recruiters are very “welcoming.” And they might even grow up.

Debra J. Saunders is a fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Chapman Center for Citizen Leadership. Email her at dsaunders@discovery.org.

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