Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff received a petition from over 650 employees. The petition states, in part:
“Given the inhumane separation of children from their parents currently taking place at the border, we believe that our core value of Equality is at stake and that Salesforce should re-examine our contractual relationship with CBP and speak out against its practices.”
The CBP is the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency. The products at issue include Salesforce’s Analytics Cloud, Community Cloud, and Service Cloud. Although several of the solutions streamline the CBP’s recruiting and human resources management, the primary concern is with how Service Cloud may be facilitating the border operations.
Salesforce is not alone. Over 100 Microsoft employees also signed a petition requesting the company end their relationship with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Amazon employees raised concerns about a government contract using their facial recognition software.
The Salesforce situation is particularly interesting since Mr. Benioff has been very vocal on several social justice issues. From gender discrimination to pay equality, he has worked diligently on these issues and solicited other CEOs to get involved.
Now an issue lands on his office desk.
What should Marc Benioff do?
It is a tough question. In thinking through Marc Benioff’s situation, several options come to mind and serve as a starting point. Each option contains risks. Let’s consider each.
Host an interactive meeting and discussion with the original 650+ petition signers.
Hosting and facilitating a conversation with the petitioners is more than an option. It is a necessity no matter what added action is taken.
The petitioners need to be heard, just as Mr. Benioff needs to listen. Gathering 650 people is no easy task. However, using video conferencing and a meeting place, most of the petitioners can assemble. Since it is a conversation, it needs to be two-way – express, listen, absorb, respond, listen, repeat. Presenting the case to nix the contract needs to be heard along with the benefits and risks of taking this action. Presenting the case to keep the deal needs to be heard along with the benefits and risks of taking this action. Balance is key.
At the end of the conversation, some agreement needs to be reached. It could be to agree to disagree. It could be finding a course of action that most agree with. The time will be well spent.
Host small group discussions across Salesforce.
Again, hosting small group discussions across Salesforce seems to be a foundational course of action. The conversations should be structured in a way to discuss immigration and the impacts of the current actions. Along with current events, discussing general immigration policy should occur, too. Woven into the conversation structure should be the business values, objectives, risks, and benefits of the CBP contract. The business and society goals need to be intertwined. Both are critical to the conversation and understanding.
From the business and society conversation, focusing on the role of values is essential. Which prevails – business objectives over business values, business objectives over societal values, societal values over business values, or values over objectives?
A real, thoughtful conversation helps everyone be a part of the tough decision to be made.
End the CBP contract.
Now, we get into the more difficult options. One clear choice is to end the CPB contract. What will happen is another vendor will pick it up and implement the solution. Salesforce may suffer in winning another federal contract given the fact that they left the CPB contract after a few months. Reputation matters here, too. Since Salesforce has been growing consistently at a double-digit rate, the impact may not be that noticeable in the short-term, but it may hinder growth in the longer term.
In this option, business values remain intact. Business objectives may take a hit. The decision is tough, but Google just made the same decision by leaving the Department of Defense Project Maven contract. Salesforce can follow the same path.
Politics is about who wins.
Politics is about who wins. President Obama said it. President Trump has said it, too, in his own way. From a Salesforce viewpoint, they can take the route that the votes were counted. Although Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, Donald Trump won the Electoral College. We can disagree with the policy, but Salesforce cannot change the election. Consequently, Salesforce can work with the government to implement solutions, but it does not have to agree with the policies set by the Administration.
Simply stated, the notion of “America first” won the election, and we cannot change the outcome. Instead, Salesforce can encourage employees to get involved in local elections. Along with the encouragement, they can offer workshops on how to organize campaigns to support candidates that will change policy.
Another action for Salesforce is to give the upcoming election day as a holiday, offering all employees the opportunity to vote. Without these actions, it is as President Obama said, “Deal with it.” Elections matter so make your voice and vote matter.
Have your cake and eat it too.
An extension of the previous option is to have your cake and eat it too. What this option embraces is the idea of keeping the contract but being very vocal in opposition to the current immigration practices. The risk here is it may seem disingenuous. Arguing against a policy that Salesforce’s software may help implement can be viewed as being shallow and lacking any moral courage.
Keep the CBP contract and give lip service to employees.
Keeping the contract is an option. More than just keeping the contract, Mr. Benioff can skip some of the other options. After all, in this scenario, Mr. Benioff can just say his job is to be the decider for the business, and the business is most important. The risk is that the organizational culture built begins to crack. The Ohana culture is only about togetherness and mutual respect for the easy issues. For the more challenging ones, it is about the executive leadership alone.
Keeping the CBP contract pits contract against culture. Which matters most?
Employee Activism meets CEO Activism
Mr. Benioff is an important example of CEO activism. When employee activism meets CEO activism, it puts the CEO in a tight position. What happens next determines the long-term viability of the organizational culture. The same cannot be said for the business. What I mean is that the business would likely survive the loss of the contract in both the short and long-term. The Salesforce stock price may take an immediate hit, and analysts may question Salesforce’s vertical market strategy. Through it, the business and leadership values survive and thrive.
What option or combination of options would you choose? What other option is more viable to balance business and societal brand and values?