Silicon Valley companies are rethinking free speech at the office

Many in Silicon Valley are encouraged to speak their minds at the office. That may be changing.

The free exchange of ideas has been a touchstone of many Bay Area tech companies, part of a counterculture vibe that has accompanied a belief in the liberating power of technology. An Apple advertising campaign once exhorted customers to “think different,” and employees heard the message, too.

But rowdy beer busts where software engineers challenged managers with questions about company policies — typified by Google’s “TGIF” meetings — have given way to tightly moderated virtual Q&A sessions in the pandemic. And in a tumultuous election year that has also seen some of the largest protests in U.S. history over policing and inequality, some are growing fatigued with political talk.

One of those people runs a valuable tech startup, and he decided to do something about it.

Brian Armstrong, the CEO of Coinbase, a San Francisco cryptocurrency trading service, told employees last month that while the company may be animated by a mission to transform the world of money, that mission doesn’t include taking stands on political issues outside the financial realm.

There were many examples of workplaces riven by discord over political issues. Facebook employees have peppered CEO Mark Zuckerberg with questions over the company’s sluggish approach to taking down misleading posts by President Trump. The company responded by tamping down political chatter on its employees-only social network. Google employees walked off the job in recent years to protest the company’s handling of sexual harassment and pay equity issues after they felt internal dissent fell on deaf ears. Many of the organizers of the walkout have left.

Both companies were cited as examples of internal discord to be avoided by Armstrong, who told employees that internal debates about politics and activism not related to work would no longer be tolerated. Those who disagreed with Armstrong’s vision of a “mission-focused company” could take exit packages.

“Life is too short to work somewhere that you aren’t excited about,” Armstrong wrote in a Medium post outlining how speech about “broader societal issues” would be curtailed in favor of a focus on product and profit.

Armstrong’s move, while counter to some of Silicon Valley’s long-standing values, is legal, experts said.

“As a citizen we may have freedom of speech, but it only gets applied in certain contexts,” said Daniel Schwartz, an employment lawyer at law firm Shipman & Goodwin. Schwartz said states such as Connecticut have laws on the books that extend the reach of the First Amendment — which prohibits only government restrictions on speech, not private ones — into a workplace.

Other states, including California, don’t, he said. That means Armstrong is within his legal rights to ask employees to keep quiet. About 60 Coinbase employees — roughly 5% of the company — chose to take the money and leave, Armstrong said in a follow-up post.

“I disagree with some of the changes made recently by leadership, and so I’ve decided to move on,” one now-former employee, Clem Freeman, wrote on Twitter.

Other praised the decision to mark the boundaries of speech at work.

“Focus is critical to staying relevant and competitive,” wrote Omar Bohsali, retweeting Armstrong’s initial post. “Proud to work at a company where we’re deliberate about where we decide to focus,” he added. Bohsali, who said he was leaving the company to start a new venture, wrote that he had “immense faith” in Armstrong and promoted the company’s job listings page, which had nearly 150 openings Friday.

A study by online jobs site Indeed found 20% of U.S. employees preferred some restrictions on political speech at work. Close to a quarter of those surveyed felt that political groups are silenced at work, most often by their peers.

That division was reflected in the reaction to Armstrong’s move, which drew sharp responses of criticism and support. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, whose predecessor Dick Costolo once called the company “the free speech wing of the free speech party,” wrote that Armstrong’s approach “leaves people behind.”

Dorsey also runs payments company Square, which competes in some ways with Coinbase. Dorsey writes that both companies are working to upend the “exclusionary” financial system, and people working in the field should “acknowledge and connect the related societal issues your customers face daily.”

Politics aside, there are cases where some categories of speech in the workplace are protected under federal law apart from the First Amendment.

Talking about working conditions and unionizing as well as discriminatory practices by an employer are protected under the National Labor Relations Act, according to employment law attorney Heather Bussing.

“The primary right is to discuss wages, hours, and working conditions with other employees,” she said. That means Coinbase employees can technically discuss Armstrong’s rule at work, for example, she added.

Bussing also pointed out that what is protected speech has to be sorted out case by case, and there are not always bright lines.

That fuzziness has only increased as more employees work from home, grappling with crises on several fronts. That makes enforcing the traditional separation of personal and corporate spheres more difficult.

“The problem is that the whole idea of work-life balance is sort of mythical,” Bussing said. “Trying to pretend like people can just put on their blinders and focus on work, especially in the midst of a pandemic and with fires and everything else, it’s a little unrealistic.”

California has some protections for workers’ speech, and employees in the state are largely shielded from facing consequences from off-duty political activities, Bussing said.

Activities like attending a protest or making political or religious statements outside of work are protected in many other states, according to Amber Clayton of the Society for Human Resource Management. But that shield has some holes.

Two recent high-profile cases in San Francisco of what was widely considered racist behavior showed how companies are willing to fire employees whose behavior during off hours reflects badly on their brand.

Over a weekend this summer, a Pacific Heights couple, Lisa Alexander and Robert Larkin, approached James Juanillo, who is Filipino, and accused him of vandalism as he stenciled “Black Lives Matter” in chalk outside his home near Lafayette Park in San Francisco.

Larkin was fired from his job at the Raymond James financial services firm after the incident and Alexander’s LaFace skin care brand was kicked off the beauty subscription service Birchbox.

During another weekend evening encounter in June, William Beasley blocked Michael Barajas, who is Mexican American, from entering the parking garage of an apartment complex where they both reportedly lived, cursing at him and calling him a criminal.

Beasley was later fired by his employer, technology company Apex Systems, a Virginia company with locations in the Bay Area.

Faced with publicly offensive behavior by employees outside of work, companies have a choice to make between holding onto someone with abhorrent views or risking a lawsuit by cutting ties.

“Silence is taking a position in situations where you are refusing to take a position,” Bussing, the employment lawyer, said. “My advice to the employer is to take the risk of litigation,” she added.

Most situations do not rise to that level, however. It’s in the realm of impassioned debate where employers face harder choices.

“Difference and conflict is where innovation and growth come from,” said Jocelyn Kung, CEO of the Kung Group, a Silicon Valley leadership and coaching consultancy.

She said getting at the interpersonal differences that underlie political spats is the best way to avoid conflict.

“People are going to have to find ways to surface their disagreements,” she said. While she sees value in Armstrong’s attempt to remain apolitical, it may not be realistic. Companies, particularly in tech, are expected by customers and employees alike to express concern about social justice issues and handle disagreements that boil over into public view, she said.

“If they work for you, and they’re your customers, can you unjustly discount them and disallow their voice?” Kung said. “I don’t think you can.”

Chase DiFeliciantonio is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @ChaseDiFelice