Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Some tech CEOs just want to make great products and boost profits while ignoring politics, but 2020 isn't letting them.

Driving the news: Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong told employees in a memo Sunday that their company would henceforth take no political stands that are "unrelated to their core mission" and bar political conversation from its office.

  • "We won’t: Debate causes or political candidates internally; expect the company to represent our personal beliefs externally; ... Take on activism outside of our core mission at work," he wrote in a public memo to employees of his San Francisco-based startup, which makes cryptocurrency software and employs more than a thousand people.

Background: The stresses of a bitter partisan election, a politicized pandemic, and climate-driven natural disasters have left many workplaces on edge. But the driving force behind Armstrong's decree at Coinbase was an employee walkout in June by workers who wanted him to take a more activist public stand in support of Black Lives Matter, as Axios' Kia Kokalitcheva reports.

  • Armstrong wrote that advocacy "for any particular causes or candidates internally that are unrelated to our mission" would be "a distraction from our mission" — which is "creating an open financial system for the world" and "using cryptocurrency to bring economic freedom to people all over the world."
  • But for some of his employees, and workers in similar positions at other companies, the social-justice concerns are not about "causes" or "candidates" but matters of basic human rights that affect their lives every day.
  • Coinbase has invited employees who disagree with its policy to walk out the door — with generous severance packages.

Between the lines: Silicon Valley led the business world in understanding that many younger workers want to feel their jobs are making the world a better place, and tech
firms crafted corporate missions that aim to inspire them.

  • Now, some of those workers are holding their firms accountable to those ideals — just as some leaders are backing off from them.
  • If you think such missions were cons to begin with —rhetorical fig-leaves over exploitative practices — then this flight from politics will simply confirm that cynicism.
  • But for employees who took their companies at their word and embraced idealistic missions, it's a rude awakening.

The big picture: The conflict goes far beyond Coinbase. Both Facebook and Google have taken steps in recent months to rein in once-freewheeling discussions of politics on company servers.

Every major tech firm today is facing questions from employees over a wide range of politically charged issues, including:

  • workforce and executive diversity failures;
  • ethical problems with their products;
  • questions about military contracts and work for authoritarian governments;
  • and, most prominently, the role of tech-built social networks in promoting misinformation and hate speech in the U.S. and around the world.

What's next: Big tech companies face a new political minefield as they weigh how to deal with a Trump administration executive order to scale back existing trainings around unconscious bias and systemic racism and sexism.

Why it matters: Armstrong's memo sparked a heated debate among tech investors and leaders and has shone a bright light on Coinbase's experiment. If the firm can prosper and attract top engineering talent while eschewing politics, other companies might find its path attractive.

Our thought bubble: Avoiding politics requires someone to define what's political, and at Coinbase, that person will be Armstrong. He will decide what is "core to the mission" and what isn't. He has a tough job ahead.

  • Whatever Armstrong's personal views are and however nuanced the company's position is, his "no politics" stance can't help being viewed as an implicit rejection of a progressive corporate agenda — and is already being cheered on the right and jeered on the left.

The bottom line: in 2020, even if you figure out how not to take sides, the sides are going to take you.

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