Enlarge /. Brian Armstrong, Coinbase CEO.
In recent years, large technology companies have faced increasing pressure from employees to address issues of social justice. That pressure increased that summer with the protests of George Floyd. But this week, CEO Brian Armstrong of Cryptocurrency Exchange Coinbase took a contrary stance.
"While I think these efforts are well-intentioned, they have the potential to destroy a lot of value in most organizations, both by distracting them and creating an internal divide," Armstrong wrote in a blog post. "We saw what internal conflicts at companies like Google and Facebook can mean for productivity. I think most employees don't want to work in these divisive environments."
Armstrong's post received a number of responses from online commentators. Some prominent Silicon Valley figures praised it, while critics argued it was "absolutely ridiculous" to believe that a company can keep politics out of the workplace.
In an internal email to employees, Armstrong doubled the company's new stance and, according to The Block, offered any employee who was "uncomfortable" with this new direction a four to six month severance pay to leave the company.
"It's always sad to see teammates leave, but it can also be best for them and the company," Armstrong wrote. "Life is too short to work in a company you are not enthusiastic about."
Why Coinbase could be different
That summer Armstrong was reportedly faced with an employee revolt after refusing to publicly acknowledge "black lives matter". According to Erica Joy and insiders speaking to Casey Newton at The Verge, Armstrong eventually gave in and tweeted the sentence – but only after some Coinbase engineers organized a strike. Some critics believe that Coinbase's new policy could be an effort to ensure Armstrong does not face this type of revolt in the future.
This type of employee activism is effective because there is intense competition for talent in Silicon Valley. Bay Area programmers tend to lean to the left on race and gender, and they have increasingly used their power to pressure their employers to do more for anti-racial purposes.
While Silicon Valley engineers lean to the left on average, the culture is anything but monolithic. Silicon Valley also has a subculture of libertarian engineers who are not enthusiastic about the increasingly awakened Bay Area politics. James Damore, an engineer laid off by Google for writing a controversial memo on gender diversity, has become one of the most famous examples.
Coinbase effectively caters for this segment of the Silicon Valley workforce. The company is well positioned for this as the cryptocurrency world has long had an anti-government ethos that appeals to libertarians. As a result, Coinbase's employees are likely leaning more to the right on issues of race and gender than Silicon Valley engineers as a whole. This is likely to apply to Coinbase's customers as well.
As a result, Armstrong is likely to receive fewer setbacks from its employees and customers than other technology CEOs who would take the same stance. His stance is and remains controversial in some corners of the internet. But he will find support from others – and these supporters could ultimately be more important to the long-term success of Coinbase.