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Did this email cost Mailchimp's billionaire CEO his job?
Ben Chestnut stepped down in August after arguing that asking for pronouns at the start of meetings “does more harm than good”
On August 10, Ben Chestnut, the billionaire founder and CEO of Mailchimp, announced he was abruptly stepping down. “Over the last 21 years as Mailchimp’s CEO, I’ve developed a strong sense of timing,” he said in a letter to employees. “Now is the right time for me to take a step aside and evolve my role.”
That sense of timing may have been informed by a controversy Chestnut had sparked a month earlier. In a nearly 1,400-word email Chestnut said he’s identified a dangerous trend in his workforce: new hires introducing themselves using their preferred pronouns.
“This is completely unnecessary [for] a woman (who is clearly a woman) to tell us that her pronouns are ‘she/her’ and a man (who is clearly a man) to tell us that his pronouns are ‘he/him,’” he wrote in an email to a small group of employees obtained by Platformer.
Chestnut said he understood the practice was rooted in kindness, but added that “in the long run this approach does more harm than good.” Forcing people to behave a certain way was “the opposite of inclusion,” he added.
The note surprised some employees, who told Platformer they had never instructed new hires to introduce themselves using their preferred pronouns.
During onboarding, incoming Mailchimp employees used to meet with Chestnut and his co-founder Dan Kurzius in a group. They’d ask the executives questions: where do you hope to see yourselves in 10 years? Did you have any idea the company would be as successful as it became? How does Mailchimp decide which causes or organizations to support?
Over the past year, employees had often started these introductions by specifying their preferred pronouns, a worker with knowledge of the situation told me. But doing so had never been mandatory.
Chestnut went on: “First, there is a very tiny number of peeps at Mailchimp who would consider themselves transgender. Forcing (either with orders, or through guilt) approximately 1,390 other peeps to adopt a new communication paradigm that humanity has never had to use in our 300k year existence, and in our 150k years of spoken language, in order to make things slightly more comfortable for an extremely small group of peeps is completely illogical.”
He added that if people are forced to do something illogical they will “eventually believe and do anything (even if it’s vicious).”
The note stung employees on the company’s people team, who have struggled to increase morale since the email marketing firm sold to Intuit for $12 billion last year. The deal made founders Chestnut and Kurzius two of the richest men in America. But it left many employees feeling shortchanged: Mailchimp, which was founded in 2001, had never taken on outside funding, and employees never got equity. (Intuit told Business Insider it would issue employees restricted stock units as part of the deal, and give them annual bonuses, which reportedly amounted to $83,000 per employee per year).
In his email, though, Chestnut worried that employees were getting distracted. They cared more about politics than the mission, he wrote, sounding notes that have previously been echoed by founders at companies including Coinbase and Basecamp.
“Now, everything is incredibly politicized,” he said in the email. “I am finding that peeps are no longer motivated by meaningful work – they are motivated to make political statements. They are using company time and company resources to win a game, against their opponents, in a game that is raging in their minds and on social media.”
Chestnut encouraged employees to respect people with different political viewpoints. “Understanding and respecting that fundamental concept – that grown adults can have different views — is a part of being American, and part of being mature adults,” he said. “Peeps of all different political leanings are free to vote the way they want to see our country governed. But that (very American) act is for the ballot box. Not for the workplace.”
Employees filed a complaint with HR. Intuit responded by saying “there would be no changes to our current practice of inviting people to share pronouns voluntarily.” One month later, Chestnut stepped down as CEO, although he remains at the company as an advisor.
In an email sent to Platformer, Intuit said it was committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion. “We also expect everyone, including leaders, to be accountable for approaching all situations with empathy, always considering the experiences of others,” they added. “While we can’t comment on internal personnel issues, we addressed this immediately and took appropriate action in alignment with Intuit’s values and principles. We have also made our expectations clear to everyone involved in this matter."
The company declined to specify whether Chestnut’s exit was related to the controversy.
“I truthfully think that if he had sent the email before the acquisition, nothing would have happened, there would have been no repercussions,” a current employee tells Platformer. “I’m extremely frustrated that he still has a role, and that role is to maintain the brand of Mailchimp.”
Chestnut did not respond to a request for comment. In an email, a Mailchimp spokesperson said:
Intuit’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion is foundational to the way our company operates and is ingrained in our values. We believe in creating an inclusive and welcoming environment, where all employees feel a strong sense of belonging and safety. We also expect everyone, including leaders, to be accountable for approaching all situations with empathy, always considering the experiences of others.
While we can’t comment on internal personnel issues, we addressed this immediately and took appropriate action in alignment with Intuit’s values and principles. We have also made our expectations clear to everyone involved in this matter.
Chestnut’s full email is below.
I’ve been really impressed by how well the new employee onboarding has been going lately. We’re bringing on so many new peeps, and in turn, they’re bringing their own great questions and making the chats very lively. Kudos!
I wanted to take a quick moment to lightly re-calibrate something before it goes too far.
I am noticing that whenever new employees introduce themselves in Zoom before asking their question, they’re also announcing their pronouns. This is completely unnecessary when a woman (who is clearly a woman) to tell us that her pronouns are “she/her” and a man (who is clearly a man) to tell us that his pronouns are “he/him.” However, if there is an employee with gender dysphoria in the room who feels more comfortable if we know about–and use--a non-obvious pronoun for them (non-obvious means that they might appear to be one gender to others, but in their minds they consider themselves another gender), they are very welcome to proclaim that pronoun to others in the room. And for the record, it’s my desire that Mailchimp is a respectful place that will honor that request, in the name of inclusion. Time and time again, I have said that I want Mailchimp to be a place where peeps–no matter what their gender, race, or anything–can come to work at Mailchimp and do their life’s best work, and be recognized and rewarded for it.
It seems as though there is a very kind and compassionate intention by someone, somewhere in onboarding, to accommodate our co-workers who use non-obvious pronouns by making them feel comfortable enough to announce their pronouns (indeed, an intimidating thing to do in front of a crowd!). The logic seems to be that, if everyone else is announcing their pronouns, then they are making it easier and more comfortable for the trans/gender-fluid employee to announce their own. That is truly kind, and I truly love that intention, but in the long run this approach does more harm than good. There are three reasons for this.
First, there is a very tiny number of peeps at Mailchimp who would consider themselves transgender. Forcing (either with orders, or through guilt) approximately 1,390 other peeps to adopt a new communication paradigm that humanity has never had to use in our 300k existence, and in our 150k years of spoken language, in order to make things slightly more comfortable for an extremely small group of peeps is completely illogical. “What’s the harm?” Well, I believe that when everyone is forced to comply with something that they know is illogical (no matter how kind the intention), they will eventually believe anything and do anything (even if it’s vicious). We’re undermining logic and reason, which undermines independent thinking, which history has shown always leads to disastrous consequences. Forcing a majority of peeps to behave a certain way is the opposite of inclusion.
Second, in my direct, 1:1 conversations with a small subset of that small population of transgender employees, I have found that they don’t even need or want all this accommodation. There is an employee who started as a woman but transitioned into a man. During transition, he politely came to me and other leaders and respectfully asked us all to honor their transition by using new pronouns. It was our pleasure to honor that request. He now uses he/him pronouns, uses the men’s restroom (has never wanted a gender-neutral restroom), and additionally has worked damn hard to earn a new career, his new place in life, and most important, I am sure has achieved peace in his mind. Just providing a place where they could earn a living and do good, hard, meaningful work helped him find inner peace. There is also an employee who was born a man, and has transitioned to a woman (before joining us) who has confided in me that she just wants privacy and to live a normal life and “work a normal desk job and work her way up the corporate ladder (her words, not mine) instead of being relegated to a more unsavory job out there, which you unfortunately find many transgenders stuck in.” She shared a story where a new co-worker “outed” her, in a sad attempt to show how woke and accepting he was. In other words, she wanted people to leave her alone and mind their business, while she minded hers, and she did not want to get caught in the middle of a political culture war so that a few employees could feel a little more righteous. In a zoom meeting, or in any meeting to be perfectly honest–there is no need to even care what your gender is. Someone can raise their hand and say “Hello, my name is ___, I work in___ and my question is ___.” There is almost no utility in proclaiming one’s gender before asking a work-related question.
Third, this used to be about fostering a creative, productive work environment. With that intention in mind, Dan and I have always wanted Mailchimp to be an inclusive meritocracy. A place where, no matter what your lifestyle, gender, race, nationality, or economic background, you could be an independent thinker and speak up! Not only would you feel emboldened to speak up, your fellow peeps would LISTEN and take your customer-centric advice. It was all in the name of work. But now, everything is incredibly politicized. I am finding that peeps are no longer motivated by meaningful work – they are motivated to make political statements. They are using company time and company resources to win a game, against their opponents, in a game that is raging in their minds and on social media. Understandably so — our society is becoming increasingly divided and it truly feels like our social fabric is being torn apart at the seams by radical politics on both sides. Coercing peeps into proclaiming their pronouns is not about creating an inclusive, creative, productive work environment. It’s becoming a political statement. As righteous as some peeps might think that is, they should also consider that there are others in this world, on the opposite end of the political spectrum, who feel just as righteous about their beliefs. Understanding and respecting that fundamental concept – that grown adults can have different views-is a part of being American, and part of being mature adults. Peeps of all the different political leanings are free to vote the way they want to see our country governed. But that (very American) act is for the ballot box. Not for the workplace. At the workplace, we respect peeps for who they are, and create an inclusive place for them to be free to do their life’s best work. Please help me do that. I hope that each of you have felt free to be yourselves at Mailchimp, and I hope you each know that’s what I desire.
If we have an employee who individually chooses to announce their pronouns (whether it’s obvious or non-obvious), let’s all respect that. But let’s also respect that, for many others, being coerced into a new behavior that is completely unnecessary for communication and only marginally helpful for those the behavior is intended to help, is just that–an act of coercion and therefore the opposite of inclusion.
THE ASK: So in your onboarding of new employees, cease to tell anybody that they are required, or even encouraged, to announce their pronouns. Simply let that be their own, independent choice. We respect that choice, just as we respect all our peeps at Mailchimp for who they are. If you, yourself, would like to announce your pronouns when you meet with them, feel free. Perhaps others will want to copy you. But let that be their independent choice.
Thanks. I know this can be a touchy topic, so if any of you feel the need to talk to me 1:1 about this, please don’t hesitate to do so. [My assistant] can schedule some time. Let me close by saying you are doing great work for our onboarding experience. I’m bringing this up with you because the onboarding experience is the very first impression on peeps, and so very critically important to set the tone for the culture of inclusion that we desire.