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Apple’s fortress of secrecy is crumbling from the inside

The last five months marked a turning point in Apple’s company culture — will it last?

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

On June 14th, 2021, Apple’s remote work advocacy group sent an anonymous email to Tim Cook. 

“We all agree that we are here at Apple to make insanely great products that enrich people’s lives and the world,” they wrote. “We are convinced that we can create the same, and even better products by adding more flexibility to the announced return to office policy.”

Two weeks earlier, 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 news wasn’t surprising — Apple’s executive team had never pretended they wanted to go fully remote. But it didn’t sit well with staff members who’d moved away from Apple’s offices during the pandemic and had little desire to go back. 

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.

“Not everyone is afraid that their boss at Apple is going to fire them.”

Apple’s remote work struggle is emblematic of a deeper shift taking place inside the company. Since 1976, the tech giant has operated in largely the same way: executives make decisions about how the company will function, and employees either fall in line or leave. What choice do they have? Apple is currently worth $2 trillion, making it the most valuable company in the world, as well as one of the most powerful. 

Over the past few months, however, that culture has started to erode. As workers across the tech industry advocate for more power, Apple’s top-down management seems more out of touch than ever before. Now, a growing number of employees are organizing internally for change and speaking out about working conditions on Twitter.

“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. 

The details of these grievances vary. Some employees want the company to invest in internal tools to better protect their privacy. Others want more transparency in how much people are paid. Many who’ve spoken to The Verge feel like Apple’s employee relations team has been woefully inadequate in addressing their workplace concerns. The overarching desire — the thing that connects the tenured software engineer in Cupertino with the retail employee in New Jersey — is that employees want to feel heard. 

So far, it’s not entirely clear Apple executives want to listen.

When Kate Rotondo started working as a software engineering author at Apple in August 2018, she did so knowing she was an exception: while most of Apple’s corporate workforce was in person, she would be allowed to work from home once a week, with the option of “earning” a second remote day after six months on the job. 

She made $10,000 to $15,000 less in base pay than the others at her same job level.

By Apple’s standards, it was a compromise. What Rotondo wanted, what she’d asked for, was to be fully remote. The last three years had taken it out of her. She’d moved from Tübingen, Germany, to San Francisco, gotten a divorce, and was now raising her nine-year-old son under complicated co-parenting conditions. The last thing she needed was a three to four hour commute. But her manager was firm: working entirely from home wasn’t an option. 

When she started her new job, Rotondo was surprised to find that this hiring manager was entirely remote himself. As were her three other team members — all men. Rotondo was the only person on her team required to go into the office. 

Still, it was Apple. What was Rotondo going to do? She put it out of her mind for six months, until she spoke to a colleague who was going from contract to full-time and wanted to talk about compensation. He was being leveled as an ICT-4 — one level above Rotondo — and would be making $25,000 more in base pay, with an additional $20,000 more in restricted stock units. 

The revelation shocked Rotondo. She felt like she was more experienced than her male colleagues. While they’d worked at Apple longer, she’d co-authored a book about the programming language Adobe AIR, taught coding at Mills College and the continuing education department at the Rhode Island School of Design, and was an expert in Apple’s own iOS programming language Swift. 

She started chatting with peers and found that — of the eight other engineering authors she’d spoken to in her org — she was the lowest paid. She made $10,000 to $15,000 less in base pay than the others at her same job level. 

During her review cycle the following year, her manager told her she was achieving expectations and praised how quickly she’d gotten up to speed on the team. He said she was getting a $5,000 bump in base pay and a $3,000 refresher in restricted stock units — far less than what she’d expected. The lowest RSU refresher she’d heard of up until that point was $50,000, over 16 times more. 

Rotondo explained to her manager that she felt she was being under-leveled and underpaid, citing the conversations she’d had with colleagues. He countered that she needed to outperform her co-workers in order to be considered for a promotion. To Rotondo, it felt like she was being asked to go above and beyond what her male colleagues were asked to do. They’d come in making more money than her — and they were fully remote. She was achieving expectations while commuting three to four hours a day. 

the leak felt violating.

Rotondo took the issue to her manager’s manager. He roped in a member of the employee relations team — Apple’s version of HR — who said they would open an investigation. Two months later, a representative came back and said the employee relations team had found Rotondo was leveled and paid fairly. “You’re getting a $0.00 adjustment,” they added. 

Shortly afterward, Rotondo resigned. She’d been at Apple nearly two years and felt completely isolated in her battle — gaslit by her managers and Apple’s employee relations team. She had no clear way to air her grievances with colleagues who might feel the same. Five months later, she filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). 

It would be months before other Apple employees started connecting on Slack and speaking out on Twitter about pay equity and sexism — the very issues Rotondo was trying to fix. But by then, it would already be too late.

Before May 2021, the public rarely heard from Apple employees like Kate Rotondo. 

“There was a perception that when you went behind the curtain at Apple, you’d never be heard from again,” says Jason Snell. Steve Jobs was so adamant about keeping his workforce under wraps that he removed all the names from the ‘About’ boxes on the software when he returned to Apple in 1997.

Internally, that secrecy is enforced through a series of norms and rules. The norms are simple: don’t speak publicly about Apple unless you’ve been specifically asked. The rules are less so: Employee badges only open certain doors, based on the projects on which they’re disclosed. They’re asked to sign project-specific NDAs. Product documents are coded with internal keywords like “Ultra,” “Black,” and “White,” which connote how secret the work is. 

There’s a strong expectation that internal problems should be kept internal.

Ultra projects — reserved for Apple’s biggest product launches — are tracked on an internal Apple system that monitors employees who have prototype devices. Apple requires vendors to sign an NDA as well as an Apple Restricted Project Agreement before they can receive information about this type of work. 

“This environment of secrecy produces an unwritten hierarchy of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ within the company,” wrote former employee Matt Macinnis. “For the ‘haves,’ the hierarchy of disclosure is a way to exert influence and demonstrate power beyond one’s role or title. For ‘have-nots,’ it’s a subtle but constant reminder of your rank.”

The Apple value that underpins all of this, elevating the secrecy concerns from an issue of potential lost revenue to one of core company DNA, is “surprise and delight.” It’s the idea that Apple products should catch the public unaware, giving them something they want before they even know they want it. 

But the secrecy has bled over into other parts of Apple’s culture, too. 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.

For many Apple employees, these idiosyncrasies are seen as the cost of working at Apple — one of, if not the, most prestigious tech firm in Silicon Valley. People know what they’re getting into when they sign up. Employees stay for decades, giving up lucrative opportunities at early-stage startups because they believe in the company’s mission. 

But for others, the company’s refusal to listen to its own workforce is becoming a bigger sticking point, particularly during an era when the balance of power is shifting away from managers and toward rank and file employees — at least, everywhere but Apple. 

On May 11th, 2021, a group of female Apple employees discovered that Apple had hired Antonio García Martínez, a former Facebook product manager, who’d written a Silicon Valley tell-all book containing misogynistic descriptions of women. One passage that began circulating internally said most women in the Bay Area were “soft and weak, cosseted and naïve despite their claims of worldliness, and generally full of shit.”

Employees discussed the issue in the #women-in-swe Slack channel, eventually deciding to write an internal letter to Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior VP of services. They didn’t want García Martínez to be fired necessarily; they just wanted answers as to how he’d been hired in the first place. 

the leak felt violating.

García Martínez was set to work on privacy on the ad platforms team. His direct working group was all men. Apple’s VP of ad platforms, ​​Todd Teresi, had no women reporting directly to him, save for his chief of staff. The idea that there might not have been any women on García Martínez’s hiring panel infuriated Apple employees and further spurred the organizing effort. 

The following day, while the letter was still being finalized, a version of it leaked to the press. The Verge published it in full. Hours later, García Martínez was fired

To many women in the channel, the leak felt violating. They’d meant for the letter to remain internal and genuinely wanted to engage Apple’s leadership and hear what they had to say. 

But it also marked a turning point in Apple employee organizing. After the Verge article was published, another group of employees wrote a letter asking Tim Cook to publicly support Palestine amid a deadly bombing campaign from Israel. Then, the #remote-work-advocacy channel published a letter pushing back against returning to the office. They circulated a survey asking people how they felt about going back to in-person work. The results of the survey also quickly became public

Now, employees know that if their tweets get enough attention, they might be insulated from overt retaliation.

The advocacy brought Apple workers into a widespread campaign for change that had been shaking up the tech industry since at least 2018. Google employees staged major walkouts to protest the company’s handling of sexual harassment. Amazon warehouse workers attempted to unionize. Facebook employees seemingly spent all of 2020 leaking their discontent to the press

This was the first time, however, that Apple employees had joined the fight: openly pushing back against the decisions — or non-decisions — of company leadership.

Apple historically dissuaded employees from talking about work on social media — even in seemingly harmless ways. The company’s guidelines are vague: “Be thoughtful about how you present yourself in online social networks,” they read. “The lines between public and private, and personal and professional, are blurred in online social networks. In particular, it’s a priority that we respect the privacy of our customers and other employees.” 

Still, multiple employees tell The Verge that those who tweet about Apple quickly receive a note from the business communications team asking to chat. They don’t always get in trouble, but the message is clear: Apple executives are watching.  

In the past, that was enough to stop most employees from speaking out. Now, employees know that if their tweets get enough attention, they might be insulated from overt retaliation. That is, unless Apple claims they’ve violated company policy. 

Cher Scarlett already had a significant Twitter following by the time she landed at Apple as a software engineer on the security team in April 2020. But for the first year, she didn’t tweet about workplace concerns. It wasn’t until news of García Martínez’s hiring started circulating internally that she finally decided to speak out. “I have been gutted, as many other folks at Apple were, with the hiring of Antonio García Martínez,” she tweeted. “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.”

Over the next few months, Scarlett became more vocal about issues she was seeing at the company. When she looked at, a website for people to compare salary data, she realized that women on her team seemed to be making less than men — at least in her geographic area. 

So Gjøvik decided to go nuclear

She knew that Apple had shut down three separate employee-run pay surveys, claiming they either contained personally identifiable information or were hosted on Apple’s corporate Box account, which wasn’t allowed. So she decided to run her own survey. After it got roughly 2,000 responses, she tweeted out some of the results, suggesting that there were far fewer women, non-binary, and non-white people in technical roles or senior positions at the company. 

News of the survey inspired others, including Kate Rotondo, to begin tweeting openly about their own issues trying to get paid and leveled fairly. It was too late for Rotondo to get justice from Apple — she’d already left the tech industry and was working as a potter in San Francisco — but the experience of speaking out was cathartic. The EEOC had not taken action on her case — a devastating blow for someone who hoped Apple might be held accountable and stopped from treating other workers unfairly. Now, she felt like the only way to told the company accountable was to speak out against its tactics on Twitter.

On July 26th, 2021, Ashley Gjøvik, a senior engineering program manager, posed a question in the #women-in-swe Slack channel. “Do we think Apple does a sufficient job at handling employee complaints about discrimination?” she asked. “Do we feel comfortable even reporting issues?”

The note sparked a long discussion from women who also felt misled by the tech giant’s HR team. Gjøvik herself shared that employee relations had investigated some of her complaints and told her “actions were taken.” “But when I pried further, there was no actual resolution or actions because no Apple ‘policies’ were violated,’” she wrote. Her sentiment was echoed by other women who said they’d experienced similar frustrations.

During the pandemic, Gjøvik had become increasingly concerned about the physical safety of the office. She already knew that her Apple department was located on a superfund site — meaning it required special oversight due to historical waste contamination. Then she received an email saying Apple wanted to do a vapor intrusion survey in the office and test the quality of the air.

“ignore the problem, say as little as possible.”

Gjøvik raised her concerns to her boss, saying she was worried about her safety and the safety of her other colleagues. She says he responded that she shouldn’t share her concerns with any coworkers.

Gjøvik went to the employee relations team and asked them to tell her boss to stop saying she couldn’t talk about workplace safety. Instead, she says they opened an investigation into whether he’d violated any policies related to sexism.

About a month later, they came back and said he hadn’t. When Gjøvik asked what her options were, the employee relations representative suggested she file an ADA accommodation request to continue working remotely after September.

To Gjøvik, the request did not solve her concerns about the physical safety of the office. But she didn’t have many other options, so she filled out the form, writing that she had “serious concerns about [the] workplace safety of my building and Apple’s other buildings on chemical release sites.”

Apple told her she’d also need to fill out a medical release form that would give her records to Sedgwick, a third-party claims company, as well as Apple, Inc. Gjøvik said she wouldn’t do it unless the form was amended to say her records would just be released to Sedgwick, not Apple. 

She never received the accommodation.

Gjøvik was frustrated; she felt like she’d been keeping Apple’s secrets for years, staying quiet about mistreatment from her boss and team members, and now — when she had a real health concern — the team was telling her to stay quiet. So she decided to go nuclear: talking about her experience on Twitter and opening up to the press about what she was going through. A few of her tweets contained redacted screenshots of bullying comments from her teammates. One suggested Apple’s access to her work phone was inappropriate, having resulted in her having to hand over nude photos of herself during an unrelated legal dispute years before. 

In August and early September, both Gjøvik and Scarlett filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board. Gjøvik said she’d faced harassment, intimidation, and an unsafe and hostile work environment. Scarlett filed on behalf of all Apple employees, saying the company had been limiting their protected right to organize and discuss pay.  

If Apple had a playbook for how to respond to allegations of discrimination and abuse over the last four months, it was “ignore the problem, say as little as possible.”

On August 20th, the company announced it was delaying its return to work until at least January 2022 due to a rise in COVID-19 cases. Advocacy about the issue quickly died down as employees realized they weren’t going to be forced back to Cupertino anytime soon. 

The firing is the first real sign that Apple executives may, in fact, be paying attention.

The company did start cracking down on non-work Slack channels. After the García Martínez letter, employee relations announced a series of rules that banned channels not related to Apple business unless they were part of an official club or diversity group. The rule did not apply to existing channels, creating a bizarre scenario where Apple banned a company-wide pay equity channel but left the #fun-dogs, #fun-cats, and #dad-jokes channels alone. 

Then, on September 9th, Apple made its first major public move in combating employee dissent: it fired Gjøvik. The company said she had leaked Apple’s confidential information in violation of her NDA. 

The firing is the first real sign that Apple executives may, in fact, be paying attention. 

Still, Apple likely won’t be able to stop employees from talking to one another. Too many of them have already met and started to organize. Some have joined non-work Discord channels to talk about pay equity and other issues that span Apple’s various teams. 

It’s too early to tell where all this activity is going. Apple employee organizing is helmed by a relatively small group of workers, some of whom are burnt out and ready to leave the company. 

There’s also the issue of internal resistance coming from other factions of Apple’s workforce. While many employees don’t want to return to the office, they disagree with how the activists have gone about pushing for change. After Gjøvik started to gain momentum on Twitter, multiple current and former Apple employees tweeted about how they were suspicious of her claims and felt like she was merely trying to get attention. On Slack, when employees talk about their concerns with privacy or a general lack of transparency, they’re often met with pushback from people who say they should have known what they were signing up for when they joined the company. 

To some employees, the bargain of working at Apple is to endure the hierarchical, secretive nature of the company. But to the workers who are pushing back, the question they’re asking is: does it really have to be this way?

Apple did not respond to a request for comment from The Verge.