Salesforce ups Georgia anti-gay battle as Benioff warns of economic "rolling thunder"

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan March 1, 2016
Salesforce today lodges formal objection to 'religious freedom' legislation in Georgia, as CEO Marc Benioff explains in detail why fighting discrimination matters to his employees and his customers.

Benioff - upping the stakes

Salesforce formally ups the stakes in its stand-off with Georgia today with the submission to the state Senate and House of Representatives, outlining its opposition to House Bill 757, the so-called ‘religious freedom’ bill.

Pointing out that Salesforce’s Atlanta office is one of the its top five employee hubs in the US, Salesforce SVP Warren Wick states bluntly:

As one of Georgia’s fastest growing technology employers, Salesforce believes that HB 757 in its current form creates an environment of discrimination that is inconsistent with our values and I am writing to register our opposition to this bill.

Equality is a core value at Salesforce and ensuring that our employees feel welcome, valued, and safe is a top priority.

He adds that Salesforce has been recognised as one of Atlanta’s best places to work and observes that:

Our success is fundamentally based on our ability to attract and retain the best and most diverse pool of highly skilled employees, regardless of race, sex, color, national origin, ethnicity, religion, age, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, or any other classification protected by applicable laws.

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The letter makes no mention of the prospect of Salesforce pulling its Connections digital marketing conference out of Georgia. Connections is due to take place in Atlanta, May 10-12, but CEO Marc Benioff won an 80% approval mandate to take such an action when he launched a Twitter poll over the weekend.

Benioff picked up on that during a keynote Q&A at the New York Times’ New Work Summit yesterday:

We’re having this conference in May. It’s 15,000 people. We have to bring our customers and employees in from all over the world. The big question for them is, “You can see what the laws are going to be down in Georgia - do you want that or do you want us to move the conference?”.

Eighty percent said to move the conference. Twenty percent said keep it where it is, so there are still people who are not going to support that. But 80% say, “Move that damn conference!”.

Salesforce has already signed up to be part of Georgia Prospers, a coalition of 400 businesses opposed to the bill. Dell, Microsoft and Twitter have also signed up to the group, as well as non-tech firms, such as Virgin, Unilever, InterContinental Hotels Group and Porsche, with several CEOs taking to Twitter to indicate their support for Benioff’s stance. 

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While opposition was already underway in Georgia, Benioff has certainly rallied some powerful names to step up to the mark:

I sent an email on Friday to 25-30 of my friends who are all CEOs of global companies. So now we’re seeing a wave of CEOs on Twitter saying, “We’re going to do the same thing”. We just need to let those legislators in Georgia know, “Hey, [if] you’re going to do that to our employees and our customers, there will be economic consequences”. There will be a kind of rolling thunder of economic sanctions if they sign that bill.

Supporters of the legislation are, of course, also upping their game. In an article entitled The Hypocrisy of Big Business Attacking Georgia’s Religious Liberty Bill, Ryan T. Anderson, William E. Simon senior research fellow in American Principles and Public Policy at The Heritage Foundation, writes: 

The hypocrisy of big business lobbying against the law is astounding. They want to be free to operate in Georgia according to their values, but they don’t want small-business competitors to be free to operate according to theirs. If all of the major corporations are already in favor of gay marriage, then this religious freedom law poses no threat. It merely protects the rights of those who disagree.

He adds:

Georgia’s HB 757 is a good first step to protecting freedom after the Supreme Court’s redefinition of marriage. It is a measured, reasonable, common-sense policy. It would ensure that no state agency discriminates against individuals or institutions for following their convictions about marriage as a man-woman union by revoking, for example, their nonprofit tax-exempt status or denying them government grants, contracts, accreditation, or licenses. The bill protects freedom and pluralism in the wake of social change—embodying the best of American values.

Benioff's interpretation is inevitably very different:

We are busy down in Georgia because you have state senators who are trying to pass a bill that is going to allow them to discriminate [against] people in Georgia. Whether you’re LGBT or a different race or whatever it is, a different orientation…you will have laws on the books in Georgia that prevent  you from basically having your freedoms. Our employees look to me and say, “You need to go and fight for our rights in Georgia because we don’t want to be discriminated against’.

We went through exactly the same thing, exactly one year ago, in Indiana where we had a governor who signed a horrible law that allowed Indiana to discriminate against our employees and our customers. The employees and the customers looked to me and said, “You got to stop that.” Now last week we had the same thing start to happen in Georgia.  You have these senators in Georgia who are fighting us on Twitter and saying [of the bill], “This is great and we love it”. Well, it’s not great for our employees.

The train that left the station

The Georgia bill in its current form passed by a huge majority last week - 38 for, 14 against - after being fast-tracked by Republican state senators and awaits signing by State Governor Nathan Deal. 

But the Twitter war between Benioff and Georgia Senator Josh McKoon last weekend has also served as a great example of the activist power of social media to turn already ongoing events around and shape opinion. As Benioff notes:

That train had left the station. Last year in Indiana, because we didn’t have a lot of experience with this and we didn’t really know what we were doing, we got there a little too late. We had written a couple of letters to the Governor, but we never thought that Governor Pence would sign that law.

Now at least we are ahead of it and we are saying to Governor Deal, “I don’t know if you saw what happened with Governor Pence?” and then we posted the video of Governor Pence being interviewed by George Stephanopoulos. George Stephanopoulos says, “Governor Pence, yes or no - is this law discriminatory against the LGBT community?’. And [Pence] just would not answer that question, because he knew what the answer was. It was yes and he was basically saying, “I discriminate”.

Then he had to backtrack because, all of sudden within one week, $50 million of conferences and events in Indiana all were cancelled. That was incredible.  We’re trying to create that same kind of momentum right now in Georgia.

There are indicators that the ‘big business’ pressure is working, with Governor Deal issuing a veiled warning to legislators that he might well veto the bill in its current form and positioning it as a “work in progress”. He said:

I do not want us to do anything that will be perceived as allowing discrimination in the state of Georgia. That is not who we are as a people. And I don’t think we have to do that in order to give the security that the faith-based community thinks we need. I want to make sure we don’t go out of balance.

For his part, Benioff sees this as positive:

[Deal] issued a statement yesterday that, “I will not sign this bill if it is discriminatory”.

So that’s exciting for us because we are paying attention and we have to advocate and just say “Hold on!”.

My take

If by "the best of American values", Anderson from The Heritage Foundation means the right to treat certain groups in society as less equal than others, then yes, HB 757 does its job. In fact, it does it to a terrifying degree.

While Anderson and advocates of the legislation are painting this as liberal big business crushing the rights of ‘mom and pop’ bakeries who don’t want make cakes for gay weddings, they’re actually, as has been pointed out by Georgia State Senator Emanuel Jones, supporting the rights of extremist groups, such as the Klu Klux Klan, in the process.

The signals coming out of the Governor’s Mansion are very welcome. It seems unlikely that the bill in its current form will survive, but that doesn’t mean an  amended version will be any better. Only time will tell on that.

But swift action needs to be taken if a business boycott is not to occur. Telecom company 373K is a Georgia-native company that has been vocal in its intentions:

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Co-founder Kelvin Williams told The New Civil Rights Movement:

I’m gay, our CFO is gay, we have people from every walk of life working here, I’ve got Muslims, Buddhists, atheists here. We’ve got great Christians working for us. They’ve never thought of not serving anyone – that’s not the message of Christ. We don’t tolerate that crap.

If you’re not a white married Christian heterosexual, prepare to be persecuted.

That’s why the big picture message from Benioff - and Branson, Dell, Smith et al - is so important:

If you can unite business to make it into a force for good, a force for change, that’s where you can make a difference.

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