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Marc Benioff was surprised by claims made in February that Salesforce's culture was discriminatory against Black employees. At least, that's what he told Fortune in a profile published on Thursday.
It's the first time the outspoken CEO, who prides himself on supporting a variety of progressive causes, has publicly commented after two Black female employees quit earlier this year over what they described as a culture of microaggressions and inequitable treatment at Salesforce.
But they weren't the only ones to raise these issues. Workers have brought similar claims to the attention of Salesforce's Office of Equality since its creation in 2016, one source told Protocol, who also confirmed that Benioff was made aware of the complaints at that time.
"The Office of Equality had been fielding these types of concerns for years, it just chose not to do anything about it," the source added. "That created real problems for its work in equality because it led to the team focusing more on the messaging and splashy events than responding to the real concerns of its Black and brown employees."
In fact, over 18 current and former Salesforce employees raised those same concerns as early as 2016 at the highest levels of the company about the slow pace of change when it came to diversity and inclusion, as well as the focus on publicity over real progress.
"Salesforce is really only inclined to care about diversity and inclusion as it relates to marketing," Neville Louison, a Black former Salesforce employee who left in 2017, said at the time.
That was in 2020, before the murder of George Floyd and other Black men and women brought about wider acknowledgement of systemic racism in the U.S. and ignited a deeper discussion about how to address it.
Since then, Salesforce has made progress toward resolving some of its own issues. The company began to compensate employee resource group leaders, for example, addressing a complaint that the burden of remedying these problems was unfairly being placed on underrepresented workers. Now, other organizations have begun to take a similar approach.
But Salesforce employees had notified senior leaders of their struggles before the racial equality movement began last year. In 2019, Vivianne Castillo, one of the two former employees who posted public resignation letters, wrote a lengthy message to a popular internal chat channel that unpacked many of the same allegations she would make years later.
In that same chat, other employees questioned why qualified Black referral candidates were being passed over for open positions. They raised issues with the treatment of those candidates during the interview process, like interviewers mispronouncing names after being told the correct pronunciation. Some were even asked if they "have an easier nickname" to go by, according to one post.
Benioff can't follow every message posted on internal chat, though he is known to be a micromanager who involves himself in minute details of the business, sources told Protocol. But his own former recruiting chief, as well as current chief diversity officer and chief people officer, responded directly to those messages with pledges to follow up for deeper discussions. At the time, diversity head Tony Prophet was even a direct report of Benioff's.
In the past, when repeatedly pressed on the concerns raised by Louison, Castillo, Perry and others, the company has stressed that equality is "one of our highest values." The most recent comments from Benioff at least appear to acknowledge there is a problem in adhering to those values.
But when asked how Benioff could have been "caught completely off guard" about the internal issues that had been raised at his company for several years, as Fortune put it, Salesforce did not respond.
Joe Williams is a senior reporter at Protocol covering enterprise software, including industry giants like Salesforce, Microsoft, IBM and Oracle. He previously covered emerging technology for Business Insider. Joe can be reached at JWilliams@Protocol.com. To share information confidentially, he can also be contacted on a non-work device via Signal (+1-309-265-6120) or JPW53189@protonmail.com.