Coinbase Has Drawn a Line in the Sand for Its Activist Employees

You might call it taking a stand by not taking one.

Brian Armstrong, CEO of Coinbase, took a strong stance against employee-driven corporate activism over the weekend, explaining that, going forward, his company would be “mission focused.”

That means Coinbase will devote all of its attention to achieving the goal creating “infrastructure for the cryptoeconomy,” but will eschew any kind of activism, and won’t take a stand on policy or societal issues that go beyond that mission.

It’s not that those issues aren’t important and don’t need solving, Armstrong says, but that Coinbase’s best shot at making the world a better place is by achieving its central mission.

It’s clear that Armstrong’s post comes in response to some kind of employee movement at Coinbase rather than pressure from the outside. He explains how he recently realized some employees believed Coinbase’s world-changing mission means the firm should actively push forward other ways to improve the world.

Now that he’s taken this stance, though, he has very politely told those people to be activists on their own time, or find another job.

What’s also clear is that Armstrong believes he’s far from alone among his C-Suite peers – not just at Coinbase or in the crypto industry, but among executive teams across corporate America. By sharing his position publicly, Armstrong obviously hopes it resonates and catches on, perhaps lighting the spark of some kind of backlash to the cultural moment that has, among other things, seen Scientific American take a position on the presidential race for the first time in its 175-year history.

And Armstrong is probably right to think so. Although barely any other CEOs responded to his post, several influencers chimed in their support. To be fair, the odds were skewed in his favor – big chunks of the crypto community, generally known to favor libertarianism and pseudonymity, would certainly feel affinity to Armstrong’s “leave me out of it” position.

Of course, there was no shortage of people calling out Armstrong for taking a position that doesn’t just go against the grain of a trend sweeping companies throughout America, but is fundamentally cowardly and on the wrong side of history. Ultimately, it will push away talent, critics say, since it will set the wrong tone with exactly the kind of employees they should want. Many workers feel empowered, and potentially more productive when they’re allowed to speak out on causes.

Sapping productivity?

Time will tell who is right with respect to Coinbase, but Armstrong’s stance is such a line in the sand in today’s culture that bigger questions are at stake. Coinbase isn’t just a darling of the crypto industry poised for an IPO – it’s a tech company based in Silicon Valley, ground zero for exactly the kind of employee activism Armstrong is eschewing.

While many corporations make donations to righteous causes or respond to the cultural zeitgeist with message-based marketing, tech companies have seen employees take strong positions in recent years to pressure their employers to do what they believe is the right thing.

Thousands of Google employees staged a walkout in 2018 over how the company handled sexual harassment allegations. Amazon workers continually speak out against the company making its facial recognition technology available to law enforcement. And Facebook’s employees are so emboldened that they’re directly critical of CEO Mark Zuckerberg in public forums.

Armstrong even name-checks Facebook and Google in his Medium post, pointing to those companies’ internal strife as an indicator of sapped productivity. The company I really think he’s thinking about, however, is Spotify, whose employees are openly revolting over podcaster Joe Rogan arrival on the platform, demanding new safeguards be put in place over potentially objectionable content.

This is where the comparison between Coinbase and the strife within the tech industry starts to break down. It’s one thing for a crypto exchange to take an apolitical stance, and another for a communications platform – where speech, information and the handling of those things are the company’s core product – to do so. 

But that’s exactly the point. Armstrong’s position isn’t a message to Silicon Valley heavyweights to turn back the clock on employee “wokeness” – it’s an open letter to every other corporate leader, urging them to connect the dots between the political positions they might be taking and the central mission of their companies. And if the result is a picture they don’t like, rethink.

I’m not naive. In today’s world, where every day seems to bring a new tragedy or flashpoint that raises the cultural temperature even more, that’s a hard thing to do.

Pete Pachal is CoinDesk’s Executive Editor, Operations & Strategy

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