‘Bathroomgate’ incident is one example of political drama at Coinbase

  • Last year, Coinbase removed signs on office bathrooms indicating that employees should use the bathroom where they feel most comfortable, a symbol of trans inclusion.
  • The decision came down from leadership, who said the signs were political, according to former employees who spoke to Business Insider on a condition of anonymity.
  • This story is one example of the kind of internal division employees at Coinbase were experiencing before CEO Brian Armstrong took a hard line by banning employee activism last week.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

 

The signs were unmissable. They hung next to the doors of office bathrooms at Coinbase and in bold letters said, “Coinbase recognizes that gender is not binary. You are free and safe to use whichever bathroom is most comfortable for you.”

When employees saw them, an uproar ensued among a small group of employees, including members of CEO Brian Armstrong’s inner circle, company insiders told Business Insider. Those upset argued that the signs were political, and that politics had no place at Coinbase, a startup that allows people to buy and sell Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.

And the incident became known as “bathroomgate” in Coinbase’s Slack messages about it.

Three former Coinbase employees spoke to Business Insider about the bathroom sign issues, which occured in late 2019, as an example of the type of internal politics that occurred at the company. They spoke on a condition of anonymity because they feared repercussions for speaking about their past employer.

The bathroom signs were hung shortly after the company moved into a new 18-floor office on San Francisco’s Pine Street. An employee resource group for LGBTQ+ employees and their allies used the move as an opportunity to make the building more inclusive for trans employees, the former employees told us. And although the office already had single-person, any-gender bathrooms, the signs, the group believed, would signal to its trans employees and to trans job candidates as well that Coinbase stood with them.

So these signs were placed at the men’s and women’s bathrooms throughout the office, a former employee said.

A few months later, Coinbase leadership made an executive decision that the signs would come down, two sources said. It alerted the operations team, who removed the signs before employees came back to the office on Monday.

Executives at the company allegedly explained their decision by saying the bathroom signage did not align with the “brand identity,” according to one former employee. “I just felt like it was in poor taste,” this person said.

A Coinbase representative declined to comment.

The incident is an example of the type of fight going on inside the company before last week, when Armstrong took a hard line against employee activism in a memo to employees that banned politics from the office. Armstrong later said in a leaked email that any employee who did not want to abide by the new policy had one week to accept a severance package.

Armstrong wrote that social and political causes were a “distraction” from the company’s mission of increasing global access to cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. Going forward, he said Coinbase will not debate the issues internally or represent the personal beliefs of its employees in a public way. The memo has sparked a fiery debate on the role of corporate activism among the tech elite, including Jack Dorsey, Dick Costolo, and Paul Graham, on Twitter.

California has a law that all single-occupancy bathrooms be open to people regardless of how they identify. And the office in San Francisco already had single-occupancy bathrooms on every floor that were designated all-gender, so trans people had a safe space to go to the bathroom. 

But the office also has other, much larger bathrooms that are gendered.

After the signs came down, Coinbase added a statement to its corporate policy, referred to internally as the “culture doc,” that reinforced the bathroom policy. Employees of all genders can still use the bathroom where they feel most comfortable, it said, and signs that read “all gender” are on display outside the single-occupancy bathrooms in the office.

So, the signs and their removal had little impact on company policy. Still, eliminating them did have consequences and impacted two trans employees, according to one employee we talked to. This person remembers one of those trans employees saying, “This is embarrassing and I feel targeted.”

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