Inside the firing of a Salesforce executive who ignored Marc Benioff’s company policy and took a board seat

marc benioff
Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff

  • Former Salesforce executive Niki Christoff posted on Twitter that the company “fired me for accepting a seat on a corporate board.” 
  • Salesforce has a policy that only allows its c-suite to serve on external corporate boards. 
  • Christoff said the policy has an “obvious discriminatory impact on women.”
  • Boardroom diversity is a hot topic in corporate America. Earlier this week, the Nasdaq said any company listed on their exchange has to have at least “two diverse directors.”
  • Got a tip? Contact this reporter via email at pzaveri@businessinsider.com or Signal at 925-364-4258.You can also contact Business Insider securely via SecureDrop.

Last May, Niki Christoff was fired.

The former Google and Uber executive had been Salesforce’s SVP of Government Relations, lobbying in Washington DC on behalf of the company, when she received an opportunity to sit on the board of a cannabis company, MedMen. Cannabis regulation is a hot-button issue on Capitol Hill.

Sitting on corporate boards is against Salesforce policy. Only Salesforce’s c-suite, the majority of whom are men, are typically exempt.

Christoff ultimately texted Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff that she intended to accept the board seat anyhow. She said she felt his policy had a discriminatory impact on women.

“I’m so disappointed!” Benioff texted her back with a heart emoji, according to Christoff.

Then she was let go.

The decision to fire Christoff has now sparked debate outside the company, since the executive has gone public with her version of events. 

“As a senior tech industry exec, I want to speak up,” Christoff wrote in a series of tweets on Friday that kickstarted the conversation.

Salesforce and Christoff declined to comment on the record for this story.

There aren’t enough women and minorities on corporate boards. Nasdaq and others are stepping up to help.

The issue of boardroom diversity is a hot topic in corporate America. Women hold 22.6% of board seats among companies in the Russell 3000 index, according to advocacy group 2020 Women on Boards. Nasdaq recently proposed a new rule that requires companies listed on its stock exchange to have at least “two diverse directors,” or risk getting delisted.

More specifically, Nasdaq companies must now have at least one female director and at least one director who identifies as an underrepresented minority or LGBTQ+ on their board of directors. Currently, over 75% of the companies listed on the Nasdaq exchange wouldn’t meet these diversity requirements, according to The New York Times

Goldman Sachs also said it would stop doing initial public offerings for companies without at least one diverse board member, and emphasized women. 

Salesforce has been making its own investments into diversity and inclusion this year, with chief equality officer Tony Prophet taking on more responsibility, including recruiting, while diversity metrics have improved slightly over years prior. Still, several Salesforce insiders recently said they were disappointed with the company’s slow progress, particularly when it comes to improving diversity in leadership.

Salesforce’s upper leadership (the VP level and above) is only 25.5% women globally, with even lower percentages for underrepresented minorities.

Salesforce makes some exceptions to its no-board-seat policy, which other companies have in place too. But is it hurting the greater good?

At the highest levels of Salesforce, several top executives do hold external board seats. COO Bret Taylor sits on Twitter’s, and outgoing CFO Mark Hawkins sits on the board of Toast, Plex Systems, Secureworks, and non-profit Ocean Cleanup. 

Several other Salesforce executives appear to have been given exceptions as well. Lisa Edwards, former executive VP of strategic business operations, stayed on Colgate-Palmolive’s board even after her direct manager, former Salesforce co-CEO Keith Block, stepped down. Similarly, chief equality officer Tony Prophet has continued on the board of education non-profit College Track, even after a reorganization layered him under chief people officer Brent Hyder.

Most companies have some kind of policy that allows the company to review and approve or deny any opportunities an employee might have to accept an outside board seat, Mike Callahan, a professor at Stanford Law School, told Business Insider.

That review process is typically stricter on board seats at a for-profit corporation – like the one Christoff joined – than a non-profit, he says. He also said it’s common for companies to limit the number of board seats held by senior executives, given their time-consuming nature.

Salesforce requires that any outside business activity – including joining a corporate board – gets managerial approval and must be reviewed by a committee to ensure there’s no conflict of interest, according to two sources familiar with the policy. 

While it’s within a company’s right to limit board seats to a select few, it may be time for companies like Salesforce to consider whether their limiting policies are hurting a greater cause.

“Inflexible systems have a disproportionate cost for women and underrepresented racial minorities,” Christoff said in a series of tweets on Friday. “Tech needs to evolve to meet this moment.”

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