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Veil of secrecy at Apple cannot hide worker unrest

While the airing of Apple’s workplace issues is remarkable to many people who have followed the company over the years, employee activism has become commonplace in Silicon Valley.

September 18, 2021 / 02:48 PM IST
A common theme is that Apple’s secrecy has created a culture that discourages employees from speaking out about their workplace concerns — not with co-workers, not with the press and not on social media.

A common theme is that Apple’s secrecy has created a culture that discourages employees from speaking out about their workplace concerns — not with co-workers, not with the press and not on social media.

Apple, known among its Silicon Valley peers for a secretive corporate culture in which workers are expected to be in lock step with management, is suddenly facing an issue that would have been unthinkable a few years ago: employee unrest.

On Friday, Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, answered questions from workers in an all-staff meeting for the first time since the public surfacing of employee concerns over topics ranging from pay equity to whether the company should assert itself more on political matters like Texas’ restrictive abortion law.

Cook answered only two of what activist employees said were a number of questions they had wanted to ask in a meeting broadcast to employees around the world, according to a recording obtained by The New York Times. But his response was a notable acknowledgment that the workplace and social issues that have been roiling Silicon Valley for several years have taken root at Apple.

Over the past month, more than 500 people who said they were current and former Apple employees have submitted accounts of verbal abuse, sexual harassment, retaliation and discrimination at work, among other issues, to an employee-activist group that calls itself #AppleToo, said Cher Scarlett and Janneke Parrish, two Apple employees who help lead the group.

The group has begun posting some of the anonymous stories online and has been encouraging colleagues to contact state and federal labor officials with their complaints. Their issues, as well as those of eight current and former employees who spoke to the Times, vary; among them are workplace conditions, unequal pay and the company's business practices.

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A common theme is that Apple’s secrecy has created a culture that discourages employees from speaking out about their workplace concerns — not with co-workers, not with the press and not on social media. Complaints about problematic managers or colleagues are frequently dismissed, and workers are afraid to criticize how the company does business, the employees who spoke to the Times said.

“Apple has this culture of secrecy that is toxic,” said Christine Dehus, who worked at Apple for five years and left in August. “On one hand, yes, I understand the secrecy piece is important for product security, to surprise and delight customers. But it bleeds into other areas of the culture where it is prohibitive and damaging.”

Cook and Deirdre O’Brien, Apple’s human resources chief, said in response to a question about pay equity Friday that Apple regularly scrutinized its compensation practices to ensure it paid employees fairly.

“When we find any gaps at all, which sometimes we do, we close them,” O’Brien said.

Asked what Apple was doing to protect its employees from Texas’ abortion restrictions, Cook said that the company was looking into whether it could aid the legal fight against the new law and that its medical insurance would help pay for Apple workers in Texas if they needed to travel to other states for an abortion.

Cook’s comments received a mixed reception from Apple employees on Slack, the workplace message board, Parrish said. Some employees cheered for Cook, while others, including her, were disappointed.

Parrish said she had submitted a question about what concrete steps Apple had taken to ensure that pay gaps were resolved and that more women and people of color were being promoted to leadership roles. “With the answers Tim gave today, we weren’t heard,” she said.

Apple has about 160,000 employees around the world, and it was unclear if the newly public complaints reflected systemic problems or isolated issues that happen at many larger corporations.

“We are and have always been deeply committed to creating and maintaining a positive and inclusive workplace,” the company said in a statement. “We take all concerns seriously and we thoroughly investigate whenever a concern is raised and, out of respect for the privacy of any individuals involved, we do not discuss specific employee matters.”

While the airing of Apple’s workplace issues is remarkable to many people who have followed the company over the years, employee activism has become commonplace in Silicon Valley.

Three years ago, Google employees marched out of their offices around the world to protest sexual harassment policies. Last year, Facebook employees protested their company’s handling of posts by President Donald Trump. And some companies have explicitly banned discussions that aren’t work-related.

But at Apple, the rank and file had until recently appeared to be doing their jobs with little fuss.

Secrecy was a trait pushed by the company’s late co-founder, Steve Jobs, who was obsessed with preventing leaks about Apple’s new products to maximize the public’s surprise when he unveiled them onstage. The employees who spoke to the Times said that, over time, that culture had extended to the broader workplace.

“Never have I met people more terrified to speak out against their employer,” said Scarlett, who joined Apple as a software engineer in April and has worked at eight other companies.

An Apple spokesperson pointed to a company policy that said employees could “speak freely about your wages, hours or working conditions.”

Slack has been a key organizing tool for workers, several current and former employees told the Times. Apple’s siloed culture kept different teams of employees separate from one another, another result of efforts to prevent leaks. There was no wide-scale, popular internal message board for employees to communicate with one another, until Apple began using Slack in 2019.

When employees were told to work from home at the beginning of the pandemic, Slack became particularly popular. “For a lot of us, this was the first chance to interact with people outside our own silo,” Parrish said. Previously, “none of us were aware that anybody else was going through this.”

The complaints seem to be making an impact. When Apple this year hired Antonio García Martínez, a former Facebook manager, more than 2,000 employees signed a protest letter to management because of what they called “overtly racist and sexist remarks” in a book he had written, based in part on his time at Facebook. Within days, Apple fired him. García Martínez declined to comment on the specifics of his case.

In May, hundreds of employees signed a letter urging Apple to publicly support Palestinians during a recent conflict with Israel. And a corporate Slack channel that was set up to organize efforts to push Apple to be more flexible about remote-work arrangements once the pandemic ended now has about 7,500 employees on it.

By Jack Nicas and Kellen Browning

c.2021 The New York Times Company
New York Times
first published: Sep 18, 2021 02:48 pm

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