Salesforce’s Chief Equality Officer asks - “Which side of history do you want to be on?”

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez October 2, 2018
Tony Prophet was appointed Salesforce’s Chief Equality Officer back in 2016. The company is leading the way on diversity and equality issues. We sit down with Prophet to understand why this matters for business.

It’s arguable that Dreamforce is not only one of the largest technology events of the year, but also one of the most political. Take a look at Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff’s keynote this year, which was effectively an activist call to arms. Equality, fairness, ethics and diversity issues appear to be just as core to Salesforce as technology is, with the putting of these debates front and centre of its annual conference.

For example, there is a whole day dedicated to equality during the event, toilets were labelled as gender neutral, activists were invited to speak, and each of Salesforce’s Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) - of which there are now ten - had a number of networking sessions throughout the week.

Not only this, but almost one in two (49%) of Salesforce employees are actively involved in one of the company’s ERGs, which now include Abilityforce (for ability inclusion), BOLDforce (for the black community), Latinoforce (for the Latino community, and Outforce (for the LGBTQ community). There are a number of others and Salesforce actively encourages members to not only join ERGs to which you identify, but to also join others so that you can learn, educate yourself, discuss, grow your empathy and become an ally.

It’s clear that Salesforce believes that issues around equality, ethics and diversity - and taking a stand on these topics - should be central to how you do business today. But, why? I got the chance to sit down with the company’s Chief Equality Officer, Tony Prophet, ahead of his keynote address at the Out and Equal Summit in Seattle today, to discuss his work and to get a deeper understanding of why this stuff matters.

(As a side note - diginomica has also got a strong track record of investing in equality and diversity, both in terms of coverage and committing to the 1:1:1 pledge.)

Prophet is an incredibly interesting man to speak to. There’s something very refreshing about sitting down with a technology executive who’s not only happy to talk about Salesforce’s tech developments, but in the same breath have an in-depth discussion about gender.

However, for those that want a summary of our conversation, Prophet’s comments on why this matters to business were the most impactful. I proposed to him that there are a number of grey areas in the debates around the ethics of diversity and equality, which is why some companies feel hesitant to get involved. However, Prophet clearly (and rightly) has no time for this. He said:

To those folks that are standing on the sidelines - we are at a point in the history of business and society where there's no margins anymore, right? There's no place to stand and not be on the playing field. The playing field is extended.

All the things that are happening in society and all the issues that come up where their customers and their employees and their stakeholders are asking them - where do you stand? Where do you stand on this issue? There's no way to say I'm an observer and not a participant.

We want to know where you stand. Almost without exception when they're pressured to take a stand, they do. I would say frequently you see these corporations standing on the right side of history. That's beautiful. That's kind of the moment in history we're at where you see these companies doing that and so the companies that don't, it's going to be hard to retain talent. I think their stakeholders or customers are going to question their values, and ask, do they want to be aligned with a company that doesn't stand for anything?

Being able to be your authentic self

This year, Salesforce added its 10th ERG to its growing groups of communities - Faithforce, a community for people of all faiths. I was keen to find out from Prophet how and why Salesforce decides to invest, promote and grow certain ERGs. Prophet said that the inclusion of Faithforce came after Prophet had some conversations with employees that felt that faith was core to them being their authentic self - and he asked himself, how do I identity? He said:

If you asked me, Tony, how do you identify? I don't know why, but I would say black and I would say male. Then I would say it was heterosexual. Then I would say cisgender. Why did I say that in that order? I don't know. I don't know why I say that. But I would never say male first for some reason. I would always say black first.

And so, what if you would put faith first? Prophet said:

Eight or nine months ago, people were just asking the question - I guess if I'm black or LatinX or if I identify as LGBTQ, or an ally, I can be my authentic self at work. But what if my faith is core to my identity?

One woman, in particular, who had found Christianity as an adult and identified as evangelical Christian, said to Prophet that she wasn’t sure if she felt comfortable wearing her cross outside of her clothing at work or not. Prophet didn’t feel that was right. He said:

I said, we have to make sure that everyone, regardless of their faith, feels like they can be their full, authentic self. And so small group of people, one of them was a Christian man, the other a Muslim woman, came together, found some common ground and created this organization called Faithforce. The group is actually the fastest growing and we have about a thousand members now, from zero.

Within the realm of ethical

It was recently revealed that Salesforce, recognising that the impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution on society and work could be huge, has decided to establish a Office of Ethical and Humane Use of Technology. You can find the full inside story on that here, but Prophet was also keen to emphasise the importance of doing business, and using technology, ethically in the future. However, this isn’t just Salesforce doing this for Salesforce, Prophet is focused on getting the industry moving forward together. He said:

Where we are extending the charter is with this notion of ethical and humane use of technology. And so Marc [Benioff[ has trusted us with the responsibility to help move that initiative forward inside the company - in partnership with all the leaders of the company, because obviously it involves so many aspects of how we go to market, how we build a product of engagement.

We're putting together a program - we'll be hiring a leader - and will be putting together a council that is both the frontline people, executives, and the brightest minds in the world. And you don't have to work for Salesforce to be involved in that.

We want to bring this multi-stakeholder group together to try to wrestle with these issues. Try to find true north here. I'm trying to find it for the company as well as to be a catalyst to create a multi stakeholder convening group, where we try to move the whole technology industry forward.

We're trying to build consensus with them to drive the fourth industrial generation revolution within the realm of ethical.

My take

It was a great pleasure to sit down with Prophet and have this conversation. Salesforce won’t always get it right, but it can’t be denied that it is spearheading this movement within the technology industry. It is investing, it is trying, and it is determined to make a change. The engagement from its employees speaks volumes. This stuff matters. And it’s not just a moral imperative, it also is better business.

I’ll tell you why. I spoke to a customer earlier this year that explicitly said - “I will now only buy from technology companies that are aligned with the culture, values and ethics of my business”. That’s the future. And those vendors that see this as trivial, will lose out. But ultimately, this is about letting people be themselves and doing what’s right. Will your company be on the right side of history?

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