SAN FRANCISCO – Apple, known among its peers in Silicon Valley for a secretive corporate culture in which workers are supposed to work closely with management, is suddenly faced with a problem that would have been unthinkable a few years ago: employee unrest.
Apple CEO Tim Cook on Friday answered workers’ questions at an all-staff meeting for the first time since employee concerns were publicly disclosed on topics ranging from pay equity to whether the company should assert itself more on political issues like Texas. restrictive law on abortion.
According to a recording obtained by the New York Times, Mr. Cook answered only two of the employee activist questions they wanted to ask in a meeting broadcast to employees around the world. But his response was a notable recognition that the workplace and social issues that have rocked Silicon Valley for several years have taken root at Apple.
Over the past month, more than 500 people who have said they are current and former Apple employees have submitted testimonies of verbal abuse, sexual harassment, retaliation and discrimination in the workplace, among others, to a group of ’employee activists called #AppleToo, said Cher Scarlett and Janneke Parrish, two Apple employees who help run the group.
The group started posting some of the anonymous stories online and encouraged their colleagues to contact state and federal labor officials with their complaints. Their problems, as well as those of eight current and former employees who spoke to The Times, vary; among them are working conditions, wage inequalities and the company’s business practices.
A common theme is that Apple’s secrecy has created a culture that discourages employees from speaking out about their concerns at work – not with coworkers, not with the press, and not on social media. Complaints about problematic managers or coworkers are frequently dismissed, and workers are afraid to criticize the way the company does business, said employees who spoke to The Times.
“Apple has this culture of secrecy which is toxic,” said Christine Dehus, who worked at Apple for five years and left in August. “On the one hand, yes, I understand that secrecy is important for product safety, to surprise and delight customers. But it bleeds into other areas of culture where it is prohibitive and damaging. “
Apple’s chief human resources officer Mr. Cook and Deirdre O’Brien said on Friday in response to a pay equity question that Apple regularly reviews its compensation practices to ensure it pays its employees fairly.
“When we find gaps, which we sometimes do, we fill them,” Ms. O’Brien said.
Asked what Apple is doing to protect its employees from Texas abortion restrictions, Cook said the company is looking at whether it can help the legal fight against the new law and that its medical insurance will help pay for it. Apple workers in Texas if they had to travel to other states for an abortion.
Mr. Cook’s comments received a mixed reception from Apple employees on Slack, the workplace bulletin board, Ms. Parrish said. Some employees applauded Mr. Cook, while others, including her, were disappointed.
Ms Parrish said she had submitted a question about concrete steps Apple is taking to ensure pay gaps are addressed and more women and people of color are promoted to leadership positions. “With the answers Tim gave today, we were not heard,” she said.
Apple has around 160,000 employees worldwide, and it was not clear whether the new public complaints reflected systemic issues or isolated issues that occur at many large companies.
“We are and always have been deeply committed to creating and maintaining a positive and inclusive workplace,” the company said in a statement. “We take all concerns seriously and thoroughly investigate each time a concern is raised and, out of respect for the privacy of everyone involved, we do not discuss employee specific issues. “
While the spread of Apple’s issues in the workplace is remarkable to many 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 against sexual harassment policies. Last year, Facebook employees protested their company’s treatment of President Donald J. Trump’s posts. And some companies have explicitly banned non-work-related chats.
But at Apple, the base had until recently seemed to do its job with little fuss. Secrecy was a trait pushed by late company co-founder Steve Jobs, who was obsessed with preventing leaks on new Apple products to maximize public surprise when he unveiled them on stage. Employees who spoke to The Times said that over time this culture has spread to the workplace at large.
“I have never met people so terrified of reporting their employer,” said Scarlett, who joined Apple as a software engineer in April and worked at eight other companies.
An Apple spokesperson pointed to a company policy that employees could “speak freely about your pay, hours, or working conditions.”
Slack has been a key organizing tool for workers, several current and former employees told The Times. Apple’s siled culture has separated the different teams of employees from each other, another result of efforts to prevent leaks. There was no popular large-scale internal bulletin board for employees to communicate with each other, until Apple started using Slack in 2019.
When employees were asked to work from home at the start of the pandemic, Slack became particularly popular. “For many of us, this was the first chance to interact with people outside of our own silo,” Ms. Parrish said. Previously, “neither of us knew anyone else was going through this.”
Complaints seem to have an impact. When Apple hired Antonio García Martínez, a former Facebook manager this year, more than 2,000 employees signed a letter of protest to management over what they called “blatantly racist and sexist remarks” in a report. book he had written, based in part on his time at Facebook. Within days, Apple fired him. Mr. García Martínez declined to comment on the details of his case.
In May, hundreds of employees signed a letter urging Apple to publicly support the 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 how to work remotely after the pandemic is over now has around 7,500 employees.
Beyond group activism, Apple faces individual struggles creeping into public view.
Ashley Gjovik, a former six-year engineering program manager at Apple, said she had complained to Apple for months about what she believed to be inadequate testing for toxic chemicals in her office, as well. as sexist comments from a manager.
After making her complaints public this year, Ms. Gjovik was put on leave and then fired. She said Apple told her she was fired for leaking product information and failing to cooperate with her investigation. She lodged complaints with the National Council for Labor Relations, the Administration for Occupational Safety and Health, the Commission for Equal Opportunities in Employment and the Ministry of Justice, a- she declared.
Apple declined to comment on specific employee cases.
Ms Dehus, who has worked at Apple to mitigate the impact of mining precious minerals in conflict zones, said she left Apple after spending several years fighting the decision to reassign her to a position. which she said involved more work for less pay. She said Apple began trying to reassign her after complaining that the company’s work on minerals had not, in some cases, led to significant change in some war-torn countries.
Richard Dahan, who is deaf, said he struggled for six years at his old job at an Apple Store in Maryland because his manager refused to provide him with a sign language interpreter to allow him to communicate with customers , which federal law requires in certain circumstances. He said he communicated with clients by typing on an iPad, and that some clients refused to work with him as a result. When he told his manager, the manager said it was the clients’ right, he said.
“Would it be okay if they said they didn’t want to work with a person of color?” Mr. Dahan asked in an interview via a sign language interpreter.
He was eventually assigned an interpreter. But at that point, he said, senior management saw him as a complainant and refused to promote him.
“Their culture is this: Drink our Kool-Aid, accept what we tell you and we will promote you,” he said. “But if you ask for something or make noise, then they won’t.”