Apple employee activism is shifting the balance of power, suggests report

Apple employee activism is shifting the balance of power within the company, suggests a report today. It says that more employees are willing to speak out about issues which concern them – such as pay disparity – and feel more protected than they have in the past.

The evidence presented is mixed, but it does indicate there has been at least some shift in the culture of secrecy at the company …

The Verge’s Zoe Schiffer covers labor issues rather than Apple specifically, but over the past several months she has become the go-to person for Apple employees who want to speak out about the company’s policies and practices.

The headline to her latest piece – “Apple’s fortress of secrecy is crumbling from the inside” – is hyperbolic, of course, but it does seem reasonable to conclude that an increasing number of the Cupertino company’s employees are willing to talk about issues that concern them.

The piece mostly summarizes what’s happened over the past five months, including the reaction to Apple’s return-to-the-office announcements.

Cook had announced that after a difficult year working remotely, Apple was reopening its offices. Starting in September, employees would be asked to return to in-person work three days a week, with the option to work from home on Wednesdays and Fridays […]

The tension might have stayed at a low simmer were it not for a Slack channel — #remote-work-advocacy — created in September 2020 to promote a more flexible working environment. By the summer of 2021, it had reached roughly 2,800 members, with conversations growing increasingly lively. After Cook made his announcement, employees knew they had to send a message. It was a small push back against management that would lay the groundwork for months of employee organizing and perhaps change the Apple workforce forever.

It argues that Apple’s famed secrecy around product development had been extended to almost every aspect of the company’s operations, with employees afraid to speak publicly about any issues at all – but that this is changing.

“There’s a shift in the balance of power going on here,” says Jason Snell, the former editor of Macworld, who’s been covering Apple since the 1990s. “Not everyone is afraid that their boss at Apple is going to fire them. They’re saying, ‘I’m going to say some bad things about Apple, and if you move against me, it’s going to look bad for you.’”

The shift is due in part to the fact that the tech giant is two years into a radical new experiment: using Slack. Where Apple employees previously worked in ultra-siloed teams with little opportunity to meet people outside their current project or department, they now have a way to communicate with anyone across the company. Employees have discovered that individual work grievances are shared by people in entirely different parts of Apple.

One of the things revealed by this greater openness has been apparent examples of pay discrepancies between men and women, something Apple says does not occur within the company.

Certainly there appears to be a gap between the iPhone maker’s statements and its actions in this area.

Although the company specifically says that its policies “should not be interpreted as restricting your right to speak freely about your wages, hours, or working conditions,” the reality is that there’s a strong expectation that internal problems should be kept internal.

When an unofficial internal salary survey revealed a 6% gap between male and female employees, Apple’s response was to shut down the survey.

The extent to which speaking out is successful is unclear. One success story was the controversial hire of Antonio Garcia Martinez, who had written a book in which he described Silicon Valley women as soft, weak, naive, and entitled. Employees called for him to be removed from his post, and Apple did subsequently fire him.

Other examples cited by Schiffer were less successful. In one case, of a woman who felt she was significantly underpaid compared to her less-experienced male colleagues, her claim was rejected and she resigned. In another, an employee who spoke out very publicly about workplace concerns was fired.

She concludes that, while there has been a shift, it’s uncertain how much of this will be a permanent change. Only a small minority of employees have spoken up, and many more feel that the secrecy is part of the deal at Apple, and if you aren’t happy about it, you shouldn’t work there.

What’s your view? Should employees be free to voice concerns about issues unrelated to product development, or should secrecy extend to how the company treats its employees? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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