Business

HB2 forces execs to stand up for their beliefs, Salesforce CEO says

In this July 2010 photo, Marc Benioff, Chairman and CEO of Salesforce.com, poses in Hawaii.
In this July 2010 photo, Marc Benioff, Chairman and CEO of Salesforce.com, poses in Hawaii. AP

Salesforce Chief Executive Officer Marc Benioff isn’t afraid to speak up about policies he finds discriminatory. That was the case with recent bills in Indiana and Georgia, which were later amended and vetoed, respectively, thanks in part to activism like Benioff’s.

The CEO of the San Francisco-based software company has since turned his attention to North Carolina’s House Bill 2, which limits protections for LGBT individuals. But unlike in Georgia and Indiana, Salesforce doesn’t have a major presence in North Carolina. So why would Benioff want to get involved with politics here?

It’s because the controversial law is forcing CEOs nationwide to examine their nondiscrimination policies and be vocal about what they stand for, said Benioff, who has engaged with major employers like Charlotte-based Bank of America to come out against the law.

“Which CEO doesn’t have gay employees they have to think about?” Benioff said in an interview with the Observer. “If you are a CEO and you’re making a decision against some percentage of your employee base, that could be significant. You are going to pay a price for that.”

Benioff’s corporate social activism was chronicled in a Wall Street Journal feature this week, though Benioff says Salesforce didn’t drive the response from other corporations to HB2 like the story implied.

“It’s not just us propagating this and continuing it. It has a life of its own,” Benioff said.

In fact, he added, most corporations weighing in against the measure had done so within a few hours the day after Gov. Pat McCrory signed it into law on the evening of March 23.

North Carolina repealed HB2 in 2017 but left intact some of its provisions. But with Charlotte’s reputation tainted, the city is still paying to market itself to visitors.

“I remember waking up that morning – and of course I’m three hours behind on Pacific time – I looked on Twitter and thought, ‘My God, what’s happening in North Carolina?’”

HB2 sets a statewide definition of protected classes of citizens that doesn’t include sexual orientation and gender identity. It also struck down a Charlotte ordinance that would have allowed transgender people to use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify.

Opposition to the measure hasn’t been just lip service in many cases. Musical acts like Bruce Springsteen canceled shows, PayPal canceled a planned expansion in Charlotte and groups are backing out of hosting conventions in the state – all because of they oppose the controversial measure.

All of it could be “easily avoided,” Benioff said, if McCrory were more willing to engage in dialogue like Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal had been.

“When you don’t have discussion, you are ending up with a rolling thunder of economic consequences for the state that are being created by the governor’s inability to have a discussion,” Benioff said.

“The governor is running a worldwide marketing and branding campaign for the state of North Carolina that they are anti-gay and pro-discrimination.”

McCrory could not be reached for comment, but the governor has said he is trying to talk with others.

“I anticipate ongoing dialogue not only with political officials but businesses and citizens,” he told the Observer recently. “But during that dialogue, we have to respect each other’s disagreements.”

McCrory met with executives at Bank of America shortly after he signed HB2 into law. The bank’s CEO Brian Moynihan has called for the bill’s repeal.

“I think it was candid and respectful,” the bank’s vice chairman Anne Finucane has said of the meeting, which had been scheduled before HB2 became an issue. “I think there was continued disagreement.”

Asked whether a full repeal of HB2 is necessary to quell corporate opposition to HB2, Benioff said it’s up to the state’s key stakeholders.

“This has not gone as (McCrory) expected,” Benioff added. “The issue really is that it happened too fast. There was no solicitation for feedback. He could have gotten where he wanted to go without this chaos.”

From Georgia to Missouri, many U.S. states are considering or have passed laws that, when enacted, restrict rights to LGBT individuals.

Katherine Peralta: 704-358-5079, @katieperalta

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