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Criticism of Salesforce's border protection deal highlights the million dollar question around corporate activism

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan July 19, 2018
Salesforce has been under fire over its contract with Customs and Border Protection, but the criticism serves to highlight the new complexities of corporate activism.

Marc Benioff, CEO, Salesforce

One consequence of taking highly-public ethical stands in the emerging age of the Citizen CEO is that there will always be those who demand more and who flag up what they perceive to be hypocrisy or double standards.

We need look no further than the flack that Salesforce has picked up this week in relation to its contract with US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), both from customers and yesterday from a legal services group supporting immigrants, which has turned down a $250,000 donation from the firm in a very attention-grabbing manner.

The story so far - CBP has been on the forefront of enforcing President Trump’s ‘zero tolerance’ approach to unauthorized immigrants on the Mexico border, a policy that resulted in the forcible separation of young children from their parents. This has led to condemnation from across the political spectrum in the US and beyond.

Prior to this policy being enforced, Salesforce announced that it had won a contract with CBP 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”.

The fact of the deal prompted concern among Salesforce staffers, with around 650 employees writing to CEO Marc Benioff to voice concern that the company’s offerings might be used to support or enable the CBP’s actions on the border:

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 employee letter stated:

As members of the Salesforce Ohana, we believe that Salesforce must stand with the families facing irrevocable and unimaginable harm at the hands of 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.

For his part, Benioff emphasized that Salesforce’s deal with CBP does not involve working with border staff in any activities involving the separation of families:

The US Customs and Border Protection contract with Salesforce is for its recruiting efforts and correspondence with US citizens and lawmakers. We are not working with CBP regarding the separation of families at the border, nor are any Salesforce services being used by CBP for this purpose.

Million dollar question

Benioff also pledged a million dollars to support agencies and organizations working with immigrants. One of these was RAICES (Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services), a Texas-based non-profit, which was offered a $250,000 donation to support its work in providing legal services in immigration cases.

But RAICES has decided to reject the offer and has set about that rejection in the most public manner possible, with Executive Director Jonathan Ryan stating in an email:

After careful consideration by our staff, we have decided to decline this gift unless Salesforce commits to cancel all direct or indirect contracts with Customs and Border Protection (CBP), as principled Salesforce employees have demanded.

He added:

When it comes to supporting oppressive, inhumane, and illegal policies, we want to be clear: the only right action is to stop. The software and technical services you provide to CBP form part of the foundation that helps ICE operate efficiently, from recruiting more officers to managing vendors. While you justified continuing your contract with CBP by claiming that Salesforce software “isn’t working with CBP regarding the separation of families at the border”, this is not enough.

Your software provides an operational backbone for the agency, and thus does directly support CBP in implementing its inhumane and immoral policies. There is no way around this, and there is no room for hair splitting when children are being brutally torn away from parents, when a mother attempts suicide in an effort to get her children released, and when an 18 month old baby is separated from their mother in detention.

Pledging us a small portion of the money you make from CPB contracts will not distract us from your continuing support of this agency. We will not be a beneficiary of your effort to buy your way out of ethical responsibility.

That’s highly emotive language, but then this is a highly emotive topic. It’s also one that earlier in the week caused 22 Salesforce customers, including Greenpeace International, the New York State Nurses Association and Fight for the Future, to write an open letter to Benioff asking him to drop the CBP contract.

Noting that all the signatories benefit from using Salesforce’s tech, the letter goes on to state:

However, we are absolutely appalled that Salesforce is providing assistance to government agencies that are violating human rights. We cannot, in good conscience, ignore this issue.

We have seen that Salesforce has spoken out against the government’s inhumane practice of separating and detaining children. We appreciate that and the donation they have pledged to make to affected families. But that is not enough. As long as Salesforce keeps its contracts with Customs and Border Protection, they are still enabling the agency to violate human rights.

If every company that has any kind of contract with these immigration agencies, immediately cut their contracts, it would make a huge impact and create enormous political pressure for these human rights abuses to end.

The letter appeals directly to Benioff:

Mr. Benioff, we know you really personally care about these issues and we implore you to listen to your conscience and show that you really care about immigrant families. As Salesforce customers, we urge you to cut your contract with Customs and Border Protection. We will not be quiet until you do.

For his part, Benioff has once again taken to twitter to reiterate his position:


My take

There is a price to be paid for taking open ethical positions and this is it - accusations that such stances are not followed through 100% and expectations of higher standards than are expected of others in the tech industry. (The silence of others, who might be able to exert influence, around any moral or ethical issue that might upset the White House is deafening! See Muslim travel ban and the end of the Dreamers Act as cases in point.)

Salesforce has been here before. After the battles in Indiana over legislation that would enable LGBTQ discrimination, with then-Governor Mike Pence eventually caving under pressure, a common accusation from critics of Salesforce’s position was to demand to know if that meant that the firm wouldn’t now do business in or profit from working in areas of the world where there is similar - or worse - discrimination in place?

My personal stance on this is that Salesforce - or any other company - can’t be expected to fix all the problems in the world and that taking a stand where you can make a difference - such as in Indiana - is the first step.

Beyond that, nurture and support and enable change wherever possible. So, for example, in countries where there is LGBTQ equality activism underway, empower those organizations with the latest marketing tech to support the promotion of their message. Sometimes direct action isn’t going to be possible or effective and in those cases indirect enablement is a positive move.

But where does that leave us with CBP?  While it’s an emotive topic - and I’m as angry as the next person at the images of caged toddlers - the accusation from RAICES that Salesforce is trying to buy its way out of responsibility just doesn’t stand up.

Salesforce has taken a very public pro-immigration stand since this situation first exploded  and made clear its opposition to the separation policy being enforced - and I would expect nothing less from the Marc Benioff I’ve known for the past 20 years.

It’s not just Salesforce that’s caught in the crossfire here. As reported before, Microsoft employees also wrote to their CEO Satya Nadella after a blog boasting of a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was removed from the corporate website and then reinstated. Nadella subsequently made sure that his opposition to the events on the border was clear and emphasized that Microsoft didn’t know of any use of its tech by ICE to break up families. The difference is that Microsoft didn’t then put its money where its mouth is as Salesforce did with its million dollars.

I said previously that Benioff should, in many ways, take satisfaction from the fact that he's created a culture in which his employees feel empowered enough to engage with their CEO on controversial issues like the CBP deal. The same should apply to customers. Given some of the negative coverage this week, it might not feel like that right now, but it seems to me that this is the sort of wider activism that Benioff encouraged at Dreamforce last year when he told his audience:

It’s about the equality of every human being. When we see discrimination happening anywhere in the world, Trailblazers came forward and help change it. We’re committed to diversity and equality. We have to look at our boards of directors, management, and employees. That’s why I’m inspired about Dreamforce – because of all of you, our Trailblazers. You’re shaping this future. I’m trusting this future to you. I know you’re going to make it great.

The sort of situation that’s arisen this week isn’t going to be a one-off. It’s the US borders issue today, but given the rise of corporate activism and the febrile political climate, there will be something else tomorrow. We’re playing by new rules and that brings new challenges and ever more complex circles to be squared.

But then nobody said changing the world was going to be easy, did they?

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