The curious case of Coinbase — employees driven out by ‘apolitical’ stance

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America’s largest cryptocurrency exchange, Coinbase, made headlines over the past few weeks for an internal culture change that effectively told employees that there will be no space for social activism within its walls. Furthermore, a recently leaked audio apparently reveals that most employees approve of the new direction.

The “apolitical” stance that is being adopted by the company was announced by CEO Brian Armstrong in a published post on the exchange’s Medium platform on Sept. 27. Armstrong’s message cited the incredibly difficult year that has hamstrung many economies, companies and individuals around the world, which has also led to a spring of various societal issues.

In an American context, the tragic death of George Floyd caused by the brutal treatment of a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020 sparked the #BlackLivesMatter movement and subsequent protests and demonstrations across the country. Many Americans decided to band together and speak out against abuse and inequality along the lines of race.

“Laser focused”

Armstrong’s post outlines the company’s desire “to be laser focused on achieving its mission,” which is to create an open financial system for the world by giving people access to cryptocurrency in order to drive economic freedom.

The CEO then highlighted his belief that allowing employees to spend time on social activism and other causes would hamper the company’s goals to build its own capacity, products and services. Armstrong highlights other Silicon Valley companies that actively encourage and engage in social activism before explaining why Coinbase has opted for a different approach:

“The reason is that while I think these efforts are well intentioned, they have the potential to destroy a lot of value at most companies, both by being a distraction, and by creating internal division.”

Furthermore, according to the CEO, “most employees don’t want to work in these divisive environments.” He further stated that employees “want the workplace to be a refuge from the division that is increasingly present in the world.” Thus, Armstrong made it clear that Coinbase would focus minimally on causes not directly related to the mission, which include policy decisions, nonprofit work, broader societal issues and political causes.

The CEO did concede that the company may engage in governmental policy relating to cryptocurrencies but wouldn’t engage in issues unrelated to the industry. Coinbase will also continue to contribute to its Pledge 1% program and GiveCrypto.org but would not participate further on that front.

Cointelegraph has reached out to Coinbase for comment but has not received a response at press time.

5% of employees opt for a severance package

Following his Medium blog post, Armstrong sent an internal email to staff that indicated that any individuals who are unhappy with the company’s changing culture policy could opt for a severance package to leave the company.

The letter offered a four-month payment package for staff who had worked for the company for less than three years. Employees who worked at Coinbase for more than three years would be up for a six-month payment package. Those opting for the packages would also receive six months medical aid coverage through the U.S. Government’s COBRA program.

The letter was reportedly sent to staff on Sept. 30, and those interested in accepting a severance package were given a week to make a final decision and submit the required documentation before the deadline on Oct. 7.

Despite the relatively short time frame, Armstrong revealed that 60 employees had opted to part ways with the company in a follow-up blog post on Oct. 8. The number accounted for 5% of Coinbase’s employee numbers, while the CEO also stated that more employees had expressed interest in leaving.

Among those leaving the company was the vice president of business and data, Dan Yoo, who announced his departure in a LinkedIn post on Oct. 7. The VP said that he would stay on at Coinbase to the end of 2020 to manage a transition before his departure. Clem Freeman, a software engineer at Coinbase, also publicly announced that he would be leaving the company on Twitter, saying he disagreed with “some of the changes made recently by leadership.”

Cointelegraph reached out to Freeman and Yoo for comment but has not received a reply from either individual.

The aftermath

The recent events at Coinbase and the subsequent reactions are still ongoing, and it’s not entirely clear cut as to what the greater impact on the business will be. From an ideological sense, the move has been met with varying commentaries and reactions from notable persons in the wider crypto community.

Coinbase was the recipient of an undisclosed investment from world-renowned tennis star Serena Williams and her Serena Ventures VC firm, which was announced in April 2019. The firm’s logo was featured on the Serena Ventures website — up until this month where the Coinbase logo has seemingly been removed. With Coinbase seemingly taken off the list of beneficiaries, it seems their newly revised culture stance is at odds with Williams’ investment firm.

Coinbase’s apolitical stance also drew derision from Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who highlighted his belief that Bitcoin acts as “direct activism” against an “unverifiable and exclusionary financial system” and that Coinbase had seemingly failed to recognize societal issues linked to its own customers’ use of the platform.

The company drew further criticism after audio from an internal meeting was leaked to Motherboard, in which it is alleged that Coinbase was accused of ‘stunting internal discussion' and forcing employees to delete political messages on the company's Slack group.

Overall, there are a plethora of different opinions toward Coinbase’s apolitical stance. Some have hailed the “business focus” while others have hit out at the seeming lack of regard for employees’ social and cultural stances. Nevertheless, the company forges on, bidding farewell to those who have chosen to disembark at a crucial crossroads in the Coinbase journey. In some cases, you are doomed if you do and doomed if you don’t. This phrase seems particularly poignant in the Curious Case of Coinbase.

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