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Salesforce sacked exec on leave during ‘traumatic health crisis,’ suit alleges

A pedestrian walks outside Salesforce Tower on Mission Street in Downtown San Francisco on Sept. 22, 2023. | Source: RJ Mickelson/The Standard

A Salesforce senior director based in San Francisco alleged in a lawsuit that she was illegally laid off while on leave for a “serious health crisis.”

Attorneys for Dina Zelikson filed the suit accusing the tech company of discrimination, retaliation, wrongful termination and a violation of California’s worker leave laws in a complaint filed in San Francisco Superior Court Monday.

Zelikson alleges in the lawsuit she was just one of many pieces of “deadwood”—defined in the suit as “unproductive employees on leave”—that were cut as part of Salesforce’s layoffs earlier this year. The layoffs hit around 10% of Salesforce’s worker base, affecting more than 7,000 workers globally.

Zelikson is seeking a jury trial and unspecified damages for economic loss, emotional distress and punitive damages, along with attorney’s fees.

A Salesforce spokesperson declined to comment on the lawsuit.

In the suit, she did not mince words about her former employer or its CEO, Marc Benioff, characterizing the company’s self-branding as “a family environment,” using the Hawaiian term Ohana, as mere “lip service.” The lawsuit even took a shot at the Salesforce Tower, calling it a “giant phallic symbol changing the San Francisco skyline.”

Zelikson was initally hired at the company in mid-2020 as a director of global digital marketing focusing primarily on MuleSoft—a software company acquired by Salesforce in 2018. By April 2022, she had been promoted to a senior director role and had a “positive, interactive, and supportive working relationship” with her manager at the time, Salesforce vice president Rick Tolman. 

But come August 2022, their working relationship soured, according to the suit. Zelikson was undergoing treatment to determine if brain tumors removed during a prior procedure had returned; she recently began suffering from “serious neurological symptoms and a newly diagnosed issue of high blood pressure” at the time.

Tolman allegedly began icing her out after she disclosed her condition, cutting scheduled meetings and not responding to her Slack messages. By October, Tolman allegedly reassigned Zelikson to another senior director and a friend of Tolman’s, the suit alleges, in an effort “to push her out as it was effectively demoting her.” 

In that meeting, Tolman allegedly said that Zelikson was “unreliable” due to having to take time off for her health concerns and questioned her “ability to perform her job in light of her recent health issues.” He also “referenced impending layoffs in a threatening manner.” By December, she had been formally approved for a three-month leave of absence.

About a month in, she allegedly received a text message from her new supervisor that she would be affected by the layoffs. “sorry it sucks so bad,” the message allegedly read. The company also neglected to provide any “clear and consistent” information about her termination date, the suit said; it was only when legal counsel took action that she received an exact date of when she was laid off.

Salesforce also denied her long-term disability coverage due to a paperwork snafu that her legal representatives deemed “common and bogus.” Zelikson is currently appealing the denial.

This is the second lawsuit by a high-level Salesforce staffer in recent months; in July, a senior vice president sued the company in Massachusetts federal court over allegations of fraud and retaliation.