Salesforce’s ‘Ohana’ mantra questioned after CEO Marc Benioff dodges questions about layoffs in all-hands meeting


Billionaire Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff often conjures the Hawaiian concept of “Ohana” with regards to his company culture. It conveys the idea of family bonds that encourage people to be responsible for each other.

After an all-hands call at Salesforce on Thursday in which Benioff reportedly dodged questions about recently announced layoffs in a rambling, two-hour speech, the appropriateness of that concept came into question. 

A day earlier, the software giant said it would cut about 10% of its workforce, noting customers were “taking a more measured approach to their purchasing decisions” in a “challenging” environment.

In an email to staff about the thousands of layoffs on Wednesday, Benioff again evoked “Ohana” and the idea of family bonds:

“The employees being affected aren’t just colleagues,” he wrote. “They’re friends. They’re family. Please reach out to them. Offer the compassion and love they and their families deserve and need now more than ever. And most of all, please lean on your leadership, including me, as we work through this difficult time together.”

‘Avoiding the topic at hand’

But judging by reactions to his speech and the unanswered questions, employees were not feeling the “Ohana.” On an internal Slack channel intended for questions during the meeting, according to Insider, one employee asked: 

“Given how little of this call has addressed the layoffs, the questions asked in this channel, and the ‘family’ who were laid off, should we consider retiring the phrase ‘Ohana?’”

Other posts in the Slack channel reportedly included, “Is Marc filibustering 47,600+ employees right now by talking in circles and avoiding the topic at hand?” and “I’m sure many of the 10s of thousands of people on this call could be getting things done rather than listening to an unstructured conversation about the business when most people came with very specific questions they hoped would be addressed.”

Benioff did seem to briefly refer to the layoffs in his speech, but in a way that likened them to deaths, according to Insider: 

“At the kickoff every year, you know, we, um, have a moment where we always say goodbye to everyone who’s died during the year,” he said. “And, um, loss is really difficult, and losing folks, and especially losing our trusted colleagues and our managers or employees, it’s very similar, uh, in a lot of ways for me. We need to kind of acknowledge that and give ourselves time to mourn and kind of be able to move forward.” 

A company blog post from 2017 entitled “The Real Meaning Behind ‘Salesforce Community’” states: “In Hawaiian culture, Ohana represents the idea that families—blood-related, adopted, or intentional—are bound together, and that family members are responsible for one another. When [Beniofff] created Salesforce in 1999, he made sure that ‘Ohana’ was in the company’s foundations.”

Salesforce did not immediately respond to Fortune’s request for comments.

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