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Politics, activism and employer brand

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Stories Inc. co-founder Scott uses Coinbase’s new policy on workplace activism and politics to examine the importance of aligning all aspects of an employer brand—from mission to brand messages to cultural norms.

In a recent blog post, Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong announced that in an effort to focus solely on pursuing its mission, Coinbase and its employees will not:

  • Debate causes or political candidates internally that are unrelated to work
  • Expect the company to represent our personal beliefs externally
  • Assume negative intent, or not have each others back
  • Take on activism outside of our core mission at work

The company recognizes that its policy of an activism- and politics-free workplace will turn away some people. In fact some employees have already resigned. 

At the same time, Coinbase acknowledges that the company must maintain a diverse workforce to truly achieve its mission. 

I think this policy doesn’t align well with the company’s mission and employer brand claims. And, this misalignment could make it harder for Coinbase to maintain the diverse workforce it acknowledges that it needs. I think that misalignment will outweigh any improvement in “mission focus” that they get out of this policy. This policy doesn’t take into consideration the relationship between employees, politics, activism, and employer brand.

An employer brand is the sum of all touchpoints

An employer brand is in the eye of the be(stake)holder—most often an employee or candidate. It’s the sum of all the experiences or touchpoints someone draws from in their perception of the organization as a workplace. When those various touchpoints don’t align well with each other, the employer brand can start to buckle.

Think of the company’s employer brand as a bus. Each wheel is a component of the employer brand. If one of those wheels is misaligned, it will be harder (and less efficient) for the bus to get to its destination.

This new policy adds a wheel to Coinbase’s bus. However, I don’t think the wheel is aligned very well to the direction of the bus (the mission) or with the direction of the other wheels (the other employer brand components).

Why Coinbase’s policy doesn’t align well

I think this policy doesn’t align well with the company’s mission or the culture of belonging it claims to have. The policy’s misalignment with both of those components of the company’s employer brand could make it difficult in the long run for the company to attract and retain talent from underrepresented communities

1. Misalignment with the company’s mission

“Coinbase’s mission is to create an open financial system for the world,” Armstrong writes. “This means we want to use cryptocurrency to bring economic freedom to people all over the world.”

I just don’t think the policy is in full alignment with that mission, and it seems I’m not alone. Armstrong continues:

“I realized at some point this year that many employees were interpreting our mission in different ways. Some people interpreted the mission more broadly, to include all forms of equality and justice. It makes sense if you believe that economic freedom is not possible without equality for all people. Others interpreted the mission more narrowly, believing that we were trying to create infrastructure for the cryptoeconomy, and that yes, this would create more equality of access for all people, but we weren’t trying to solve all forms of inequality in the world.

The narrower interpretation is how I intended the mission to be understood. I don’t think companies can succeed trying to do everything.”

— Brian Armstrong, CEO of Coinbase

For the record, yes, I believe that economic freedom is not possible without equality for all people. However, I’m not suggesting Coinbase needs to solve all forms of inequality in the world. I’m just pointing out that refusing to let inequality be talked about in the workplace feels incongruous with the company’s mission, however narrow or broad it’s interpreted. 

It’s fine if Coinbase wants to follow the narrower interpretation of their mission—though, frankly, I think they should update their mission statement if it causes so much ambiguity. But I think they’ll realize that the misalignment between the policy and the mission will make the bus ride a little indirect. 

2. Misalignment with Coinbase’s aspirational culture of belonging

Armstrong claims that one of the company’s focus areas is to: 

“Enable belonging for everyone: We work to create an environment where everyone is welcome and can do their best work, regardless of background, sexual orientation, race, gender, age, etc.”

After listening to Lars Schmidt’s interview of Chief People Officer LJ Brock, it does sound like that focus is sincere. But I don’t think the policy helps support that claim. (By the way, I highly recommend listening to the episode—Lars ask LJ some good questions.)

With the policy, Coinbase employees are basically being told, “Please do not bring your whole self to work.” It feels to me that, by definition, someone can’t feel like they truly belong somewhere if they can’t speak up about something that’s bothering them. In fact, a claim that your company focuses on enabling belonging falls a little flat with a policy like that in place.

Side note: as Jill Carlson sums up really well in this tweet, there’s a lot of privilege that goes with the expectation of narrow focus at work.

The impact on employer brand

Coinbase’s culture won’t be for everyone (myself included), nor should it be. On that front, I appreciate their candidness that this policy and their culture will cause people to opt-out of working there. 

And, while I disagree with the policy at an emotional level (stating that racism is a problem should not be considered anywhere close to the “blurry line between moral statements and politics”), I acknowledge that they have a right to enact this policy and that my criticisms are more based on feelings than data. But, going back to our definition of an employer brand, how someone feels about a workplace is pretty much everything.

I think that the policy will require additional work for Coinbase to prove that they are who they say they are as a culture (e.g. that they enable belonging). They should consistently share employee stories that prove that Coinbase enables belonging, because on the surface, the policy might be undermining that claim. 

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