Salesforce's Hawaii Obsession Provokes Debate Over Appropriation

(Bloomberg) -- Inc. co-founder Marc Benioff has suffused his software company with the Hawaiian “Aloha spirit,” which guides everything from corporate values to office decor. But now, in the age of heightened workplace sensitivity, some employees are starting to debate whether the obsession honors the culture – or is cultural appropriation.

New employees at Salesforce are adorned with a lei and welcomed into the “ohana” -– the Hawaiian word for family and what the company calls its workforce. Maybe they’ll have a meeting in conference rooms Maka Launa or Hala Kahiki. And at the end of the week they can join many of the other nearly 30,000 employees in wearing Hawaiian shirts, because every Friday is “Aloha Shirt Day.” After reaching milestones for years of service at the company, they could be rewarded with a glass desk trophy in the shape of a surfboard.

Salesforce's Hawaii Obsession Provokes Debate Over Appropriation

The Hawaiian theme has been an integral part of the company’s corporate culture since the beginning. Benioff, Salesforce’s high-profile co-chief executive officer, took a sabbatical after nearly a decade at Oracle Corp., “rented a beach hut on the Big Island of Hawaii, swam with dolphins and embraced the spirit of Aloha,” according to the company blog. When he came back to California, after a stint in India, too, and helped start Salesforce, the motif stuck. According to the blog, the ‘Aloha’ spirit is one of inclusiveness, compassion, caring and “enjoying a healthy dose of fun.” Benioff sees it as a “passion for giving” that is a key tenet of company culture. But some employees have begun to feel that it’s gone too far.

“We do things that may feel Hawaiian, but that are not Hawaiian,” wrote Andrew Afram, an experience architect at Salesforce, in a post late last year on an internal company forum, which was seen by Bloomberg News. “All references to Hawaiian culture at Salesforce that I’ve seen firsthand have been appropriation, misappropriation, or misrepresentation.’’

Sarah Mei, whose LinkedIn profile lists her as an architect at Salesforce, prompted the discussion after writing on the forum that the company is “justifiably open to charges of cultural appropriation.”

“This is something we need to fix, from both an equality perspective and from a public perception perspective,’’ wrote Mei, who had recently joined Salesforce at the time.

Mei’s post, which was viewed more than 9,000 times internally, sparked a conversation with passionate views on both sides. Mei didn’t respond to requests for comment. Afram declined to comment further. The thread saw regular contributions into June of this year, totaling about 130 posts, including from Chief Equality Officer Tony Prophet and Chief People Officer Cindy Robbins.

“This is an important topic that we’re actively discussing with our employees to address in a thoughtful way that honors our company’s founding vision while respecting fully Hawaiian culture and history,” Prophet wrote in response to a later post continuing the discussion on the forum. “Yes -- some of the specific examples cited in the post and comments are problematic. We absolutely recognize there is more work to be done.”

Salesforce's Hawaii Obsession Provokes Debate Over Appropriation

Prophet highlighted the company’s Hawaiian Culture Council, in which “some of our employees have helped advise our business functions on the language and imagery used in our content and events.” He also pointed to the company’s Equality Inclusive Marketing Program, which he said identifies and eliminates cultural bias in new and existing programs.

“Salesforce has always had a deep respect for Hawaiian culture,” the company said in a statement. “It has been a part of the company since its founding, based on the idea that family — including our employees, customers, partners and communities — are bound together and responsible for one another. We’re proud of our employees for being passionate and vocal.”

The debate is a sign of the changing norms in the technology industry in particular, and broader corporate culture generally, where executives are being held to higher standards of diversity and inclusion.

Salesforce's Hawaii Obsession Provokes Debate Over Appropriation

“People don’t identify with these labels like they once did,” said Tim Kuppler, director of culture and organization development at Human Synergistics, a corporate culture consulting firm. “That may be due more to what’s happening in society -- with #MeToo. There’s much more of a sense with millennials to speak up and show your identity.’’

If Salesforce wants to preserve the “positive aspects of their culture, they need to make sure they’re on the leading edge of where society has been going,’’ he said.

Usually, Benioff is on the vanguard of the tech’s progressive movement. He’s spent millions to close the gender pay gap at Salesforce and aggressively lobbied for LGBT rights. But the controversy shows that there are times when Benioff’s efforts to be an enlightened leader may not strike the right tone with everyone.

Only 57 people out of Salesforce’s 18,264 U.S. workers are Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, according to the company’s annual diversity report for 2017.

Blaine Kaho’onei is one of them, and a Salesforce veteran of more than 14 years, currently the director of alliances for Heroku – a Salesforce cloud platform -- in the Americas. In a response to Mei’s original post, he said he had been approached by “many other staff” with similar concerns about the Hawaiian culture. Kaho’onei, who did not respond to a request for comment, said in the post that he had talked with senior officials about the use of Hawaiian culture and was working on “ways to apply a more native Hawaiian context’’ to company resources.

Other employees defended the Hawaiian theme. “We are not dressing up as Hawaiian Islanders and pretending to be them for Halloween,” Shannon McKinney wrote on the thread. “We are not using racial slurs against Hawaiians in our company’s terminology. It seems to me that Marc Benioff and company culture embraces the Hawaiian culture as something we want to emulate in spirit.” McKinney, who has since left Salesforce, declined to comment further.

Salesforce's Hawaii Obsession Provokes Debate Over Appropriation

With offices adorned in bright colors and Hawaiian accents, Salesforce’s island theme has contributed to its perennial presence on “Best Places to Work’’ lists; the company has been in the top 50 of Glassdoor’s best large American places to work for seven of the past eight years and tops Fortune’s list this year.

For Benioff, the cult of Hawaii is real. He owns an opulent 5-acre estate on the coast of the Big Island, and he had a dog he named Koa (the dog was given the title of “Chief Love Officer” at Salesforce). According to Kaho’onei’s post, Benioff’s personal kahu, a sort of spiritual and cultural adviser, is Danny Akaka Jr., the son of the late senator, who has blessed the company’s Dreamforce conference multiple times, and also the site of Salesforce’s brand-new 1,070-foot office tower in San Francisco. Last November, Benioff and his wife purchased a rare piece of Hawaiian art, a 200-year-old carving of the war god Ku, for $7 million and donated the piece to the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. He also supported relief efforts after a volcanic eruption in the state earlier this year.

When asked about Salesforce’s use of native Hawaiian theme, Kamanaʻopono Crabbe, CEO of the state’s office of Hawaiian affairs, invited company officials to meet with the office and Native Hawaiian community leaders to discuss how to best incorporate Hawaiian culture and values into their corporate structure and to establish a relationship with the Native Hawaiian community and Hawaii.

“Native Hawaiian values are reciprocal by design and, when used in a pono (appropriate) manner, honor Native Hawaiians and this incredible place from which these values originate,” Crabbe said in a statement.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.