PORTLAND — One of Portland’s largest tech employers, software company New Relic, appears increasingly at odds with its own workers over its response to the resurgent civil rights movement.
The conflict has been amplified by CEO Lew Cirne’s large donation to a private Christian school that excludes gay students and opposes gay rights. He has also donated money to a controversial evangelist who proselytizes to Jews. Cirne’s wife is a contributor to President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign, another sore point for many New Relic employees even though she has no role with the company.
The dispute echoes employee activism at other big tech companies like Google and Facebook, which have resisted workers’ calls for a more active response on social and political issues.
New Relic has similarly sought to draw boundaries between its business and the larger cultural and political tumult. The conflict has grown increasingly personal inside the company, though, with nasty exchanges on internal online discussions and sharp words from Cirne. He says that some of his staff are too focused on the company’s internal culture at the expense of its customers.
Some employees, in turn, say Cirne’s personal values appear out of step with the broad message of inclusion the company presents. They see his wife’s donations to Trump as antithetical to the company’s stated values and ask why he would donate to a school that singles out gays, lesbians and transgender students for exclusion.
“That is deeply concerning to me, especially to someone who is queer. I don’t feel like those diversity and inclusion initiatives are real or will be protective of me,” one New Relic employee told The Oregonian/OregonLive. She asked not to be identified speaking about her employer, saying she no longer feels comfortable being herself at work. She says she feels victim of a “bait and switch,” saying the company lured her into a false sense of security with its diversity pledges.
New Relic declined a request for comment from Cirne on his charitable activities, his social and religious views, or his political leanings.
The company’s recruiting webpage features a rainbow logo and professes support for LGBTQ+ employees. “Our culture is genuine, honest, and inclusive, and encourages each of us to be ourselves at work, every day,” the website proclaims. Like many tech companies, New Relic employs a chief diversity officer.
But some employees say Cirne’s private actions, and his confrontational tone during internal discussions, belie that pledge. An employee who also asked not to be identified accuses Cirne of “engaging in Trump-like behaviors,” and says Cirne’s wife’s donations to the president’s campaign make New Relic’s diversity initiatives feel like “gross lip service.”
A reckoning point
Though little known outside the tech industry, New Relic makes a class of widely used software that helps organizations monitor how their website is performing and how customers are using it. Its revenues were just shy of $600 million in its last fiscal year, up 25%.
Years of rapid growth have made Cirne extraordinarily wealthy. As New Relic’s founder and CEO, Cirne owns shares worth more than $400 million altogether. He has set aside an enormous portion of his wealth for charity, giving his philanthropic foundation New Relic stock worth more than $100 million.
Originally from Canada, Cirne is a tech entrepreneur who worked as a software engineer at Apple before starting a company called Wily Technology, which sold to CA Technologies in 2006 for $375 million. “New Relic” is an anagram of his name (“Lew Cirne”).
New Relic’s headquarters are in San Francisco, where Cirne works, but its engineering office is in downtown Portland. The company has more than 600 employees there (working from home during the pandemic) and plays a leading role in the city’s tech community on a variety of issues, including active support of diversity efforts.
For months, New Relic employees in both Oregon and California have been vocal on the company’s internal message boards about Black Lives Matter and other civil rights causes. While New Relic has tweeted its support for the movement and affirmed its commitment to diversity within its work force, some employees want more – demanding, for example, a commitment that the company not do business with federal immigration authorities.
The issue created a fault line between Cirne and some employees. In a discussion on New Relic’s internal messaging service in June, the CEO lamented the dispute and upbraided employees.
“I am disappointed at the tone that this channel has taken,” Cirne wrote, according to a copy of his message provided to The Oregonian/OregonLive. “It feels more combative than the New Relic dialogues I am used to. It is clear that some of you are devoting more energy and attention inwards, than towards our customers.”
However, Cirne then offered to hold an all-hands meeting to share his thoughts on social issues and how he wants the company to operate. When an employee replied that he had a meeting previously scheduled, and asked if the CEO’s talk would be recorded, Cirne shot back: “I would move your meeting. I have.”
Two days later Cirne sent a scolding memo to the entire company, admonishing employees to work harder and warning that New Relic was trailing competitors. Most controversially, Cirne said he was shutting down further internal debate over New Relic’s public response to Black Lives Matter and other civil rights issues. He invited employees to leave New Relic if they disagreed with the company’s approach.
“This matter is off the table for further discussion,” he said.
The memo further divided the company. Some employees saw it as exactly the kind of direction the company needed to get back on track and revive the flagging business.
Others found it deeply alienating.
“Overall, morale is very low and a lot of people are looking for new opportunities because it seems like the open culture we loved is dead and not coming back,” one New Relic employee said.
After Cirne issued his June memo, New Relic began requiring employees to agree to new code of conduct for online behavior. The memo banned discriminatory remarks based on age, disability, gender, sexuality and other protective classes. But some employees zeroed in on other elements of the document, which bars “revisiting a discussion that has already been addressed,” spreading rumors, or using emojis to endorse an online remark that violates other prohibitions.
If an employee engages in “unacceptable behavior,” the document warns, “we will investigate and take any action deemed appropriate, which may include termination.”
The family foundation
Incensed by the disputes and fraying internal culture, New Relic employees began looking at Cirne’s family charity, the Beloved in Christ Foundation, funded with New Relic stock donated by the CEO. Cirne’s wife is the foundation’s president and he is its chairman and treasurer.
From 2016 to 2018, the foundation gave more than $7 million to a variety of nonprofits, including Christian youth groups and family camps, disaster recovery efforts and international relief groups. In September, Cirne told employees that Beloved in Christ will aid victims of the wildfires that burned more than 1 million acres across Oregon.
Most donations appear generous and uncontroversial, but a few stand out to employees. In 2018, the most recent year for which Cirne’s foundation has reported its charitable activities, it gave $250,000 to Faith Academy of Marble Falls, a private Christian school near Austin, Texas.
Faith Academy says it operates under a fundamentalist interpretation of scripture that opposes gay marriage, and the school rejects gay students and their supporters.
“Faith Academy retains the right to refuse enrollment to or to discontinue enrollment of any student who engages in, but not necessarily limited to, sexual immorality, including any student who professes to be homosexual/bisexual/transgender or is a practicing homosexual/bisexual/transgender, as well as any student who condones, supports, or otherwise promotes such practices,” the student handbook reads.
Such sentiments are irreconcilable with New Relic’s stated commitment to diversity, according to the New Relic employee who complained of a “bait and switch” on the company’s approach to diversity. She said Faith Academy immediately jumped out to her when she reviewed Cirne’s charitable giving.
“Someone who has those values is not going to be supportive of open discourse along those lines,” she said. She said she feels the donations are reflective of someone who treats queer employees as “second-class citizens.”
Cirne’s foundation also gave more than $50,000 to organizations run by an evangelist named Sid Roth. Raised a Jew, Roth now proclaims Jesus Christ as the messiah and proselytizes to the Jewish community.
In 2010, after Roth claimed to have mailed 125,000 copies of his evangelical tome to Jewish households in the Northeast, the Anti-Defamation League condemned his actions as “deeply offensive and deceitful.” The organization said Roth presented his work as an authentic celebration of Judaism, but that it was actually part of an effort to convert Jews to Christianity.
The Anti-Defamation League says it no longer tracks Roth’s activities, but Bob Horenstein with the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland said Roth and people like him are essentially trying to trick Jews into believing they can remain in their faith while also accepting Jesus as the messiah.
“We find their tactics to be deceitful, misleading,” Horenstein said. “And it’s an affront to us.”
While Horenstein said Cirne “can do what he wants” in terms of donations, he said efforts to target Jews with evangelical messages are frankly offensive, carrying an implicit message “that Jews are not complete individuals.”
Especially galling to some New Relic employees is the financial support Cirne’s wife, Kirsten Vliet, has given to President Trump. The president is ferociously unpopular in Portland and in San Francisco, the cities where New Relic operates. Some employees said they particularly oppose the president’s stances on gay and transgender rights and on immigration.
Though Cirne himself is registered as an unaffiliated voter in California, and federal records list no political donations from him, his wife has donated more than $28,000 to Trump’s campaign and Republican campaign efforts since June 2019.
Politics in tech
Employee activism appears on the rise across the tech industry, with Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Facebook and others facing demands from their workers that the businesses take more active stances on social issues or in political movements.
Companies have been divided in their responses. Some, like Microsoft, say they welcome workers’ passion. Others resist the pressure.
Brian Armstrong, CEO of cryptocurrency company Coinbase, wrote last month that his company will stay out of politics, “focusing on what we have in common, not where we disagree, especially when it’s unrelated to our work.” Subsequently, Armstrong offered employees up to six months of severance if they oppose the policy, according to the trade publication The Block.
Coinbase said last week that at least 60 employees, 5% of its workforce, have accepted the buyout offers. (Coinbase opened a large Portland customer service office in 2018.)
New Relic’s paradox is that the identity of the company, which is outwardly supportive of diversity, appears in conflict with the personal views of its CEO, according to Jeanne Enders, a business management professor at Portland State University.
“His personal donations could be considered evidence that he does not authentically stand behind the statements made by the company which means the company loses credibility for both internal stakeholders (employees) and any external stakeholders who care about these issues and select their business partners based partly on cultural fit,” Enders wrote in an email. “Loss of credibility is the first step to loss of legitimacy for business organizations.”
It may be that Cirne sees his own family’s political and social views as being in keeping with the company’s position that employees bring their full selves to work each day. But Enders said executives, especially a CEO like Cirne, have special roles as leaders of their organizations.
“Is he willing to lose good employees and perhaps customers to stand for the courage of his convictions?” she asked. “If the answer is yes, then he needs to align the firm’s stated values more closely to his own actions in order to lead authentically and develop a more authentic (organizational) culture.”