Benioff said his comments in Davos were unplanned. Prior to the event, he'd been chatting with friends like Jim Steyer, founder of Common Sense Media, and tech investor and Facebook critic Roger McNamee, and it had become "crystal clear that [Facebook] was a train wreck and that the management team was making it worse," he said.
He'd also recently met with ex-Uber CEO Travis Kalanick about his mistakes at the ride-hailing company, and how the tech industry had to shift from a relentless pursuit of ideas to a focus on trust.
As it happened, he was on a panel titled "In Technology We Trust?" with Uber's new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi. Then, Benioff let loose on Facebook, telling CNBC that the company's "product designers are working to make those products more addictive," and suggesting we fix it "exactly the same way that you regulated the cigarette industry."
The clip went viral — and the remarks didn't sit well at Facebook. Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg contacted Benioff to express her displeasure.
"Her response and others was that it wasn't true what I was saying and they were going to send me a variety of materials to prove to me that I did not understand the situation," Benioff said. "I said I'd be happy to change my position if they sent me those materials that showed I was wrong. Maybe I was wrong, and I'm happy to fall on my sword."
He paused. "But of course those materials never arrived."
(When contacted about the dispute, Facebook said it sent Benioff the materials on April 6.)
In the great tech backlash of 2018, not even Salesforce was immune. In March, the company announced that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) was deploying Salesforce's analytics and cloud products to "modernize its recruiting process" and help the agency manage its border activities.
In President Trump's America, few issues are as politically charged as border security, given the administration's aggressive clampdown on immigration. Workers at Microsoft and Google objected to their employers' controversial government contracts, and now it was happening at Salesforce.
Employees signed a petition in June over the CBP deal, and protesters at the annual Dreamforce conference in September brought along a large human cage. It symbolized that the company was complicit in the government's immigration policy, including the separation of families at the southern border.
From Hawaii, Benioff spent a good part of the summer wrestling with the matter, as well as some of the bigger moral issues that Salesforce and its counterparts are facing, particularly as sophisticated technologies like artificial intelligence gain wider adoption and weave their way into everyday products. Benioff knew he didn't have a ready or adequate response to the employee pushback regarding the CBP contract, and that such tensions aren't going away.
"They ask me questions I don't have the answer to and I don't have the authority or understanding to be able to opine on," Benioff said. "I said I need a team that I can pivot to to say, 'What is the right thing to do here?' And I'm like, it's crazy that we don't have a team like this. And it's crazy that no company does."
Benioff opted to keep the contract, but he put Tony Prophet, the company's chief equality officer and a former Microsoft executive, in charge of building a group equipped to handle related issues in the future. The process took six months, Benioff said, culminating with the hiring on Dec. 10, of Paula Goldman from Omidyar Network as Salesforce's first chief ethical and humane use officer.
"You don't want to be a CEO or co-CEO and all of the the sudden you get a phone call, 'I don't agree with your ethics, I'm leaving,'" Benioff said. "I could not imagine if that actually happened. I'd be very upset."