Brian Armstrong is the CEO of Coinbase, a cryptocurrency exchange that says it has over 34 million users. This week he shared a memo with employees that encouraged employees who didn't agree with the company's position on political and social activism to quit. Armstrong had previously published a blog post that outlined the company's position, which has since generated a lot of controversy.
One of the sentiments that drew the most attention was Armstrong's assertion that, as a company, Coinbase won't get involved "when issues are unrelated to our core mission, because we believe impact only comes with focus." He referred to the internal tension at other tech companies related to social and political causes and said that he believes "most employees don't want to work in these divisive environments."
He explains the position this way:
In short, I want Coinbase to be laser focused on achieving its mission, because I believe that this is the way that we can have the biggest impact on the world. We will do this by playing as a championship team, focus on building, and being transparent about what our mission is and isn't.
The memo to employees went further, offering them paid severance if they'd like to leave because those values aren't in alignment with their own. That, as you might imagine, has attracted a lot of attention, including from many other high-profile tech leaders.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted that the company, by definition as a cryptocurrency exchange, was activist, and that Armstrong's position was wrong:
Much of the coverage of both the blog post and the letter to employees has been framed as Armstrong having a "take it or leave it" position, but without the second "it." Just, take it or leave. As a result, he's faced intense criticism from many who believe that companies have a responsibility to not supress that type of culture, and that Armstrong is unfairly shirking that responsibility.
There are really three important things here. The first is that he's not only telling people to quit. He's actually offering to pay them to do it. Let's be clear, Coinbase isn't under any obligation to do that, and the fact that it is actually shows that Armstrong is sincere about creating the best environment for everyone who works there.
It's also probably a good investment, to be honest. Instead of allowing tensions to grow because people feel like they aren't heard, or that they disagree, they now have permission to leave and find somewhere else to work that better reflects their values. And they can do it without the pressure of losing their income completely.
The second is that there's a lot of room in any company for disagreement. You should absolutely have people around you who disagree with you about strategy, or tactics, or even about your ideas. Just because you're the leader doesn't mean you have a monopoly on good ideas.
In addition, the people who work with you are, well, people. They aren't robots. They come to work with thoughts and feelings and opinions and personality. In fact, that's probably a large part of why you hired them in the first place. Which means that they are a part of your mission.
On the other hand, what there isn't any room for is misalignment about values and mission. If your organization has people who are not in alignment on those areas, it absolutely is the responsibility of a leader to find a way to change that and sometimes that means letting them go. But again Armstrong isn't just letting people go, he's offering to pay them.￼
Finally, the point here isn't whether a company should or shouldn't follow Coinbase's lead and allow political discussions on work-related platforms. I happen to think that Armstrong is right when he says that most people don't come to work for controversy, they come to work to do work. But the bigger point is about making sure that everyone is aligned with the values and mission of your company, and making it easy for people to opt out if they feel like they aren't.
A final thought: Armstrong encourages his employees to "assume positive intent amongst our teammates, and assume ignorance over malice." Or, in other words, give one another the benefit of the doubt. If nothing else, that alone seems like a worthwhile idea for every leader, now more than ever.