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labor Apple Employees Are Going Public About Workplace Issues — And There's No Going Back

Employees say the recent leaks might have changed the tech giant forever

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Illustration by William Joel, The Verge

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venEven to the workers who wrote the letter, the leaks came as a shock. Apple employees rarely speak to the media, particularly about the company culture. In Silicon Valley, Apple operates with an unprecedented level of secrecy, managing personnel issues and product launches with complete authority.

The culture has benefits for employees. People work at Apple because they are design fanatics. The elegant hardware products are seen by many as unmatched in the tech industry. Fewer leaks mean fewer distractions and more time to focus on the work.

The company also has an aura of prestige. Working at Apple is widely seen as the pinnacle of success in the tech industry, even more than the company’s biggest rivals. If Google is a sprawl of creativity and ideas, Apple represents a workplace of organization and vision. People don’t go there for a few months or a year; they stay for decades. The tenure makes employees loyal.

So it was surprising, to some, when the company hired Antonio García Martínez, a former product manager at Facebook who’d written a tell-all book about Silicon Valley. García Martínez’s tone in the book was brash and misogynistic — it didn’t match with Apple’s carefully managed public image and commitment to diversity.

After he arrived, multiple female Apple employees went public about their concerns on Twitter — a rarity at a company where employees are discouraged from sharing their opinions about work. “I have been gutted, as many other folks at Apple were, with the hiring of Antonio García Martínez,” wrote Apple engineer Cher Scarlett. “I believe in the strength of community we have at Apple, & that the culture we’ve built can weather this. I also believe in leadership to do the right thing, whatever that is.”

Then, a group of workers wrote a letter calling for an investigation. “Given Mr. García Martínez’s history of publishing overtly racist and sexist remarks about his former colleagues, we are concerned that his presence at Apple will contribute to an unsafe working environment for our colleagues who are at risk of public harassment and private bullying,” they said.

Within hours, the letter had well over 1,000 signatures. It was leaked to The Verge. That evening, García Martínez was fired.

The events stunned even the letter writers. They’d expected the note to cause a stir inside Apple, but they hadn’t intended for it to become public. “The leak was very shocking to everybody who was vocal and involved in writing the letter,” says one worker who asked to remain anonymous for fear of professional retaliation. “Either somebody is a very good actor or there’s someone else who felt like the letter was going to disappear unless it became public.”

A week after The Verge published the García Martínez letter, a group of Muslim employees at Apple penned a note calling for the company to release a statement in support of Palestine. When Tim Cook didn’t respond, the letter was leaked to The Verge.

The two letters, and their leaks, are signs of a slow cultural shift at Apple. Employees, once tight-lipped about internal problems, are now joining a wave of public dissent that’s roiling Silicon Valley. Employees say this is partly because Apple’s typical avenues for reporting don’t work for big cultural issues. They also note the company rolled out Slack in 2019, allowing workers to find and organize with one another.

Now, some are beginning to feel that the company culture has harmed diversity and inclusion efforts. “Apple’s secrecy works great for protecting our customers and our products, but it hinders inclusion and diversity,” says an anonymous employee. “There’s a lack of education around what is confidential versus what is your protected speech and you should speak up about.”

Public organizing, particularly on social media, has been enormously successful in Silicon Valley, allowing workers to wrestle power away from management. At Google, it’s led the company to end forced arbitration for all full-time employees. At Amazon, it’s spawned massive unionizing campaigns. Now, it seems to be Apple’s turn. “Suddenly at Apple, as everywhere else, managers can only stand back and watch as workers reshape the bounds of what will be permitted at work,” wrote Casey Newton, founder and editor of Platformer.

There’s no sign the leaks will extend to Apple’s product launches. This is the part of the business that Apple cares about most — and it has gone to great lengths to dissuade employees from leaking. In 2018, the company sent out a note threatening to fire and even sue workers who shared product information.

The company also has a structure in place to prevent employees from sharing — or even finding out about — product information before it’s public. Employees sign project-specific NDAs and are dissuaded from telling their spouses about their work. Their badges only open certain doors at the company’s Cupertino, California headquarters. Prior to the pandemic, most engineers were barred from taking products in development home from the office.

The culture of secrecy has bled over into many aspects of Apple’s culture. But employees say it is enforced more through norms than through rules. “The habit of secrecy is self-enforcing once established,” an anonymous employee says. Most of the time, problems are escalated internally and quietly resolved without the public ever finding out.

That didn’t happen when García Martínez was hired at Apple. Female employees weren’t sure who would care about their concerns. “For women, it was especially sensitive because the things that were being highlighted [from Chaos Monkeys] were all very misogynistic, so it felt very personal, but at the same time, who do you report it to?” asked an anonymous worker. “How do you report someone who has done something, but hasn’t done something to you specifically?”

Apple employees are quick to point out that they’ve been organizing internally for years. In 2020, they pushed the company to move away from using the terms “master” and “slave” in engineering contexts where one process controlled another, part of an industry-wide shift away from the labels.

They also called for Election Day and Juneteenth to become paid company holidays in a letter last year. “Apple is one of the most influential companies in the world,” they wrote. “While there is undeniable momentum behind the Black Lives Matter civil rights movement, we can and should be setting a better standard for other companies to follow. We believe we have an opportunity with Election Days to be a leader that forges ahead of the rest.” The push was largely successful. On July 24th, 2020, Bloomberg reported the company was giving workers four hours off to vote on Election Day. Employees in the United States get Juneteenth off this year.

Apple management might not love what is happening — it’s not very Apple-y, after all — but if employees maintain their secrecy surrounding its products, the firm might not care enough to crack down. Workers can tweet about Apple, just not Apple products. And they likely will: as one anonymous employee told The Verge in the wake of the García Martínez letter, “I think this has forever changed the culture of Apple.”

Apple declined to comment for this story.