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Salesforce staffers voice concern over contract with U.S. border control

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan June 25, 2018
Salesforce staffers have voiced concern about the firm working with border control under the current circumstances.

Marc Benioff
Marc Benioff

As a company that encourages employee activism on a host of equality and diversity issues, it was perhaps inevitable that Salesforce would find itself caught in the cross-fire surrounding the U.S. Government’s border control controversy.

MIcrosoft was the first to be hit by collateral damage after bigging up its work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on a corporate blog (and clumsily trying to remove the offending paragraphs before reinstating them).

With the Trump administration coming under national and international fire for enforcing a policy of separating children from undocumented parents on the border, Microsoft staffers signed a petition asking the firm to break its links with ICE. The company later stated that it knows of no instance of its tech being used to support the separation enforcement.

Salesforce executives, including CEO Marc Benioff, have publicly made clear their disapproval of the break-up policy, so reports of a letter from employees voicing their concerns are perhaps surprising. But according to Buzzfeed, over 650 staffers have done just that, writing to Benioff to say:

As members of the Salesforce Ohana, we believe that Salesforce must stand with the families facing irrevocable and unimaginable harm at the hands of [Customs and Border Protection (CBP)] We believe that the moral and ethical emergency that CBP’s practices have created and in which we have become complicit compel us as an Ohana and you as our CEO to take action by re-examining our contractual relationship with CBP and speaking out against its current practices.

This all dates back to March of this year, prior to the Trump policy being put into action, when the firm announced that the CBP had signed to use Salesforce Analytics, Community Cloud and Service Cloud to “modernize its recruiting process, from hire to retire, and manage border activities and digital engagement with citizens”.

Specifically, CBP was said to intend to use:

  • Community Cloud for “an aggressive transformation effort to increase core human resources information technology capabilities for current and prospective employees, while at the same time, driving efficiencies throughout the process”.
  • Analytics for “a quick view of its recruiting efforts, which can then be segmented by demographics, regions and more, helping them better understand where there is a recruiting need and more accurately target potential employees”
  • Service Cloud for “efficiencies around how U.S. border activities are managed, and handle feedback from citizens across a variety of channels”.

It’s the Service Cloud aspect that most worries the signatories to the Salesforce employee letter:

We are particularly concerned about the use of Service Cloud to manage border activities. 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 reexamine our contractual relationship with CBP and speak out against its practices.

The signatories acknowledge that Trump has since signed an Executive Order to stop the separation of children from parents, but note:

...that simply returns us to a status quo of detaining children with their parents at the border. We believe it is vital for Salesforce to stand up against both the practice that inspired this letter and any future attempts to merely make this destructive state of affairs more palatable.

Salesforce has said in a statement that it is not aware of any Salesforce offering being used by CBP for the purposes of separating families, backing this up with postings on Twitter to make the point:

Salesforce border tweet

My take

I said last week when we looked at the Microsoft blog story that this was an issue that wasn’t likely to go away. We’ve since seen Amazon staffers writing to CEO Jeff Bezos asking him to guarantee that the firm’s facial recognition tech won’t be abused by government agencies.

Now Salesforce employees are expressing concern. In many respects, this is actually something that should cheer CEO Benioff - a corporate culture in which staff are empowered from the top to take a stand on important moral and ethical issues. As the letter reads:

Many of us choose to work at Salesforce because of Salesforce’s reputation as a company that stands up against injustice. We agree that the business of business is to improve the state of the world. We want our work at Salesforce to have a positive impact on our friends and neighbors, not to make us complicit in the inhumane treatment of vulnerable people.

While emphasizing that there is absolutely no indication at all that there is any such complicity - and knowing those at the top of Salesforce, I can’t believe there ever knowingly would be! - this is another example of the dilemma we’ve noted over the past few months of how to square the circle on points of principle and ethics in a febrile political environment.

Salesforce has proven itself on this front before - look no further than the battle against ‘Bigots Charters’ in the likes of Georgia and Indiana. But as noted last week, we live in challenging times. Or as the Salesforce employees observe of the firm’s high standard of values:

Those values often feel abstract, and it is easier to uphold them when they are not being tested. They are being tested now.

They will be again. As will those of the wider tech industry. Those who uphold them will be on the right side of history.

Image credit - WEF

Disclosure - At time of writing Salesforce is a premier partner of diginomica

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