An internal memo from founder and CEO Tobi Lütke of the thriving Canadian software firm Shopify leaked last week.
It would be easy to poke fun at the editors of Business Insider for even publishing a months-old e-mail, given that his most important point is that Shopify is a business.
That means it's not a family — at Shopify poor performers will get asked to leave — and it's not the government.
It can't stand completely apart from a culture or a country, as Lütke also wrote, but Shopify can't solve big social problems. And it can't supply everything an employee might need.
The timing of his memo last summer suggests a little about why he wrote it, because it followed by just a couple of months the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
The way Floyd was killed forced white executives who always thought of themselves as enlightened to question what they thought they knew about the long history of racial injustice in America.
It's hardly surprising that staffers up and down the organizational chart, including at Shopify, logged in at work and wanted to keep this conversation going. You can see how hard this was for some managers, like when Coinbase Global CEO Brian Armstrong became one of the first tech CEOs to shut down what he considered political discussions on grounds they divide the team and distract from the work.
That approach didn't always go that well, of course, as seen with the Chicago software firm Basecamp. It's well known for its project-management software even though this spring it had fewer than 60 employees.
Last month, Basecamp CEO Jason Fried publicly announced new policies that included banning "societal and political discussions" from its internal communications system.
The issue that precipitated these changes turned out to be a debate over what to do about an informal list of customer names that had struck some staffers as sounding funny. Some names appeared to be African or Asian.
As a writer for technology news site the Verge pointed out, that means the staff wasn't arguing about politics or the culture outside of Basecamp. What erupted into a crisis was a Basecamp practice that top management knew about.
After Fried announced the policies, including a ban on political issues, a subsequent post by his co-founder apologized for not shutting down that customer list and detailed a severance pay package if any staffer didn't like the new direction.
Roughly a third of the staff left their jobs.
There was more going on at this company than can be quickly summarized here, but one odd thing is deciding to make these changes public in the first place. The 3M Co. CEO doesn't immediately post a personnel policy change on the internet.
In checking with Twin Cities tech executives last week, they knew all about the Basecamp news. And they described how their workplaces have been talking about the business and racial injustice, too.
It came at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic had closed down the offices, but tech workers were likely chatting all day on workplace systems like Slack before the pandemic.
Tools such as Slack — and maybe this is my baby boomer bias for more old-fashioned forms of communication — are too much like Facebook and Twitter. It's too easy to type up something more pointed than a person might say out loud.
In Business Insider's account, there was sometimes heated chatter on the Slack system at Shopify. One of the behaviors Lütke listed in his memo as damaging to the Shopify team was "endless Slack trolling."
Trolling means posting comments mostly meant to provoke or insult. It's a judgment call on what's really trolling, of course. I feel for managers who have to make rules for respectful discussion or figure out which topics clearly land out of bounds. That won't be easy.
It's naive to think that employees don't bring their whole selves with them to work. If working in the office really does remain optional, there's not going to be a coffee pot to gather around most days, either. That means pronouncing the online communication system "for business use only" would only turn a big chunk of the hardest-working, most dedicated staffers into HR policy scofflaws.
Keeping the conversation from spiraling into the kind of forever wars you see on Facebook or Twitter isn't just up to the managers, though. Workers who see something on one of these chat channels they don't agree with hopefully will recognize it's not just a problem but a gift, too.
The chance to be around people all day who aren't just like you and don't think like you is one very good reason to keep going to work.