I was laid off by kinder, gentler capitalism

Carol Emert
5 min readFeb 2


Photo by Ronan Furuta on Unsplash

I was laid off from Salesforce one day after receiving my 3-year anniversary gift in the mail. In all, 8,000 people were let go — a bloodletting that temporarily paralyzed the company and sent up cries of foul internally, in the press, and in social media.

Salesforce’s #airing-of-grievances Slack channel lit up red hot; people didn’t mince words. They accused CEO and chairman Marc Benioff of hypocrisy. He’s a well-known advocate for the kinder, gentler form of capitalism known as stakeholder capitalism, which holds business accountable for the wellbeing of all of its stakeholders — not just shareholders.

That includes community members, the natural world, partners, and employees.

Like the 8,000 who lost their jobs.

“Just stop calling us an Ohana if it’s really all about money,” was the general sentiment on Slack, according to my Salesforce friends. “Ohana” is a Hawaiian word that means “chosen family” and Marc’s term of affection for the Salesforce community.

I had a ringside seat for Salesforce’s stakeholder capitalism advocacy; I spent most of my time at Salesforce helping give it voice.

I was the lead creative strategist on brand values communications for our Sustainability, Philanthropy, Equality and ethical technology teams. I was the lead content strategist on the Team Earth brand campaign, which espouses stakeholder capitalism with a high-profile assist from Matthew McConaughey. I even gave a featured presentation at a Salesforce conference on how social and environmental values drive business growth.

So what’s it like to be laid off by kinder, gentler capitalism?

Well, of course, it sucks. Just like being laid off by overt profiteers — I’ve experienced both. Unexpected job loss spawns anxiety and turmoil. Plus, I loved my job and the great people I worked with.

But getting laid off by Salesforce was also better in certain ways. How?

1. The kinder, gentler severance package really helps.

In addition to the required 60 days of paid notice under the federal WARN Act, Salesforce is providing enough severance to support my family for a few months. I’m not sleeping great, but I’m sleeping better than if I’d received a more typical package of a few weeks.

Of course, that’s cold comfort to the contractors at Salesforce who are being let go with no notice or severance. But it contrasts with my first layoff years ago by an ad agency; it eliminated people over several months in groups just small enough to avoid triggering WARN.

The Salesforce layoff is big enough that option wouldn’t have been possible. Still, Salesforce acted with integrity compared to employers who don’t even pretend to care about anything other than profits.

2. The intentional culture keeps on giving.

I’ve never worked anywhere as dedicated to nurturing its culture as Salesforce, with its five core values — trust is #1 — that everyone knows by heart. Salesforce does a great job hiring people at the intersection of Very Nice, Very Smart, and Very Talented to fuel both its culture and its business success.

As soon as my colleagues saw that my Slack profile had gone dark, they started calling, texting, LinkedIning, inviting me to drinks, and connecting me with prospective employers. So being laid off is hard, but this very intentional work family — which Salesforce gets credit for creating — is helping me through.

3. Critical voices are being heard.

Salesforce employees can be direct, even scathing, on Slack and in all-hands calls with executives. The layoffs triggered a torrent of internal criticism and demands for answers from the c-suite.

Do executives deflect some of the hard questions? Yeah, they do. And morale suffers.

By all accounts, the all-hands call after the layoff left a lot of employees demoralized and unhappy. But the hard questions and the angry voices were at least heard. Execs know how their people feel, which is a starting point for making things better and learning from mistakes.

My kinder, gentler layoff was also worse, or at least weirder, than other layoffs.

Instead of focusing on lower performers, many of the people who lost their jobs were hard workers who were highly valued by their teams. Managers were largely not consulted. People leaders logged on that morning and learned that part of their team had been let go — they had no say in who.

Ripples of shock went around Salesforce as people started tracking down the Slack accounts that had gone dark.

The takeaway for some folks still at Salesforce is that working hard and doing everything right may not ultimately matter. That’s not a great way to motivate people to work hard and do everything right.

“If they let you go when you did so much great work, I feel like none of us are safe,” said a distressed Salesforce friend who called me that morning.

Another friend texted, “I’ve been at creative agencies during layoffs and most of them you could at least understand. This one is baffling. There’s no pattern. It feels like a lottery, which is terrifying.”

The takeaway for some folks still at Salesforce is that working hard and doing everything right may not ultimately matter. That’s not a great way to motivate people to work hard and do everything right.

As much as I believe in stakeholder capitalism, I also believe in meritocracy. Would old-fashioned capitalism have preserved the jobs of the people most valued by their managers and their teams?

Salesforce says its personnel decisions were driven by business priorities and I believe that must be true. Everything I experienced at Salesforce indicates that it is fully committed to conventional business success. (While that may seem at odds with stakeholder capitalism, a preponderance of evidence shows that stakeholder capitalism can ultimately make companies more successful. That’s part of Salesforce’s rationale.)

[B]eing laid off by kinder, gentler capitalism sucks eggs. But it doesn’t suck ostrich eggs, like being laid off by companies that are 100% profit focused.

I know there were factors I’m not privy to that could account for the releasing of strong performers. Legal complexities. A reorganization the day after the layoffs, which created some redundancies. The simple fact that 10% of the payroll was destined for the chopping block.

Still, it’s hard to square either business success or stakeholder wellbeing with the decision to eliminate so many people without consulting their managers. Marc has said repeatedly that productivity is an issue. Managers know who’s productive and who isn’t. And now, manager morale has taken a beating too. What impact is that having on productivity?

So to circle back to the initial question, being laid off by kinder, gentler capitalism sucks eggs. It doesn’t suck ostrich eggs, like being laid off by companies that are 100% profit focused. But for those who are left, the blind cutting of organizational muscle carries its own risks — to morale, loyalty, productivity and trust.



Carol Emert

Carol Emert is a marketing strategist and former journalist living in the San Francisco Bay Area.