Marc Benioff struggled for most of last summer with his decision to keep Salesforce’s controversial contract with the US Customs Border Patrol

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff Melia Robinson/Business Insider
  • Marc Benioff struggled in deciding whether or not to keep Salesforce’s contract with the Customs Border Patrol (CBP) after employee backlash last June, according to a recent interview with CNBC.
  • “[Employees] ask me questions I don’t have the answer to and I don’t have the authority or understanding to be able to opine on,” Benioff said.
  • Ultimately, Benioff decided to keep the contract in place, though he vowed that in the future, an internal team focused on ethics would make these types of judgment calls.
  • Political organising groups who oppose the CBP contract tell Business Insider that they are still are not satisfied.

Government agencies are attractive customers to Silicon Valley tech companies peddling software and services that promise to modernise the cogs of bureaucracy.

But in an age of divisive public policy and rising employee activism, doing business with the government is not the slam dunk business deal it once was.

For Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, this reality hit hard last year, leaving the the industry’s most outspoken champion of progressive causes on the defensive.

Benioff struggled with the decision to work with the Customs Border Patrol throughout last summer, he said in a recent interview with CNBC. And even after Benioff took steps to ensure that Salesforce is better prepared to address thorny issues like this in the future, the experience has left its mark on the company.

“What’s the right thing to do here?”

In June, more than 650 Salesforce employees sent an email to Benioff criticising the company’s contract with the Customs Border Patrol (CBP). “Given the inhuman separation 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 letter said.

The Salesforce founder and co-CEO ultimately decided his company would keep its contract with the CBP – claiming that his company’s software was not used to separate families – though he”wrestled” with the judgment call for most of the last summer, according to a CNBC interview with Benioff .

“[Employees] ask me questions I don’t have the answer to and I don’t have the authority or understanding to be able to opine on,” Benioff said in the interview.

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After his decision, Benioff vowed never to put himself in that situation again. “I said I need a team that I can pivot to say, ‘What is the right thing to do here?’ And I’m like, it’s crazy that we don’t have a team like this,” he said.

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According to the interview, Benioff tasked Salesforce’s Chief Equality Officer, Tony Prophet, with forming an internal team to own difficult ethics questions as they arise. Six months later, the group was complete with the hiring of Paula Goldman, the company’s first chief ethical and humane use officer.

“It takes political clarity”

The hiring of a chief ethical officer and the offloading of Benioff’s decision making in ethically-hairy situations, however, did not satisfy those who continue to oppose Salesforce’s contract with the CBP, like the political organising group Business Insider spoke to named Mijente.

Mijente met with Tony Prophet and other Salesforce executives in an off-the-record meeting at Salesforce Tower last November, but ultimately, their demands to cancel the contract were not met.

“I think Salesforce is calculating the political risks of it,” Mijente member Jacinta Gonzalez said in a recent interview with Business Insider. “I think even though they know that it’s wrong, even though they feel the pressure, I think standing up to the government in these times takes courage. And it takes political clarity. And I think they’re struggling with that decision.”

A Salesforce spokesperson told Business Insider: “We believe in a multi-stakeholder dialogue and that’s why we met with Mijente to hear their concerns.”

Benioff’s strife over the CBP contract, highlights the struggle tech companies face as they balance working with the government, which is an important part of their business, with their progressive, Silicon Valley ethos. Google, for instance, has been providing AI technology to the Pentagon but decided to not renew its contract after an internal uproar last March.

“You don’t want to be a CEO or co-CEO and all of the sudden you get a phone call, ‘I don’t agree with your ethics, I’m leaving,'” Benioff told CNBC. “I could not imagine if that actually happened. I’d be very upset.”