I was fired from Apple after making several labor complaints against the company. Speaking out feels like going up against a powerful government
Business Insider | Ashley M. Gjøvik | Sep 16, 2021
Before I was fired last week, I worked at Apple as a senior engineering program manager for over six years. I've loved Apple products and the Apple brand since I was a little girl. But what I've witnessed and experienced has raised endless questions about the company's values.
In March, after the company sent an email to our management team and me saying that they wanted to test if toxic chemicals were present in the indoor air of our office building, I raised concerns about the safety of the building: Our office sits on a Superfund site, which since the '60s was home to labs that leaked toxic chemicals into the soil and groundwater.
After I raised these concerns with the management team, my direct manager asked me not to share them with others. When I raised this issue with the employee relations department, I also mentioned sexist comments my manager made toward me. Instead of looking into my workplace safety complaint, they launched an investigation into sexism by my manager. I told them I feared this would lead to retaliation against me.
In the following weeks, my managers reassigned my work without explanation, I was ostracized from meetings, and I saw an increase in my workload of unfavorable projects. I asked Apple to launch a second investigation, which was ongoing at the time of my termination. I was also organizing with employees regarding systemic discrimination at Apple, and I was working with my colleagues to gather evidence to see whether there were safety hazards at the office.
I was frustrated and disappointed that a company I had admired for decades would act this way, but I quickly lowered my expectations when I was placed on administrative leave.
I filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the National Labor Relations Board, and the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, laying out the claims I have detailed above. I complained of Apple's disappointing response to my safety concerns and the years of sexism and bullying I faced while at the company. This included gendered feedback, disparaging comments about my mental health and gender, and lewd and sexual gestures one of my manager made towards me. I also complained about being held to different expectations than my male colleagues and the aforementioned retaliation. These investigations are ongoing.
If the more than 300 #AppleToo complaints in recent weeks are any indication, I am not alone in my experience alleging workplace bullying, discrimination, and retaliation. But the sheer size, power, and reach of Apple means that speaking out against the company feels like going up against a small country — one that exerts outsized, nearly invasive control over their citizens' (or employees') lives. That's why any attempt to hold the company responsible should match the standards of accountability to which we hold a state or government recovering from authoritarianism: If the company is to truly reckon with its systemic problems, it needs to start by compensating for its past and present misconduct and holding its perpetrators to account.
Apple operates like an authoritarian government, with its own set of rights for its employees
As I went through all this, one shocking line of questions arose. What rights do I have as an employee? Would Apple look through my personal data to try to get an upper hand or prepare for litigation? Apple has a well-known internal culture of surveillance, intimidation, and alienation. We're told we have no expectation of privacy while it tells the public that privacy is a human right. These disparities between my rights as an individual and as an employee make working at Apple feel like living in a parallel state.
This type of surveillance is so prevalent that earlier this year, while helping organize employees over discrimination, I made a joke on one of our Slack channels that since I had said the word "union" three times in one day I was probably on an Apple "watch list." I have no reason to believe Apple has a watch list, it was a joke, but the point was I felt implicitly forbidden to critique Apple's policies or even speak openly to coworkers with concerns about employment and work conditions.
The company even employs former intelligence officials from the FBI, the National Security Agency, and secret services in the ranks of its "worldwide loyalty team," tasked with investigating leaks and other transgressions. After my own experience and reading about Apple's treatment of employees' privacy, I felt nauseous, powerless, and violated. I realized just how extensive the power differential between me and my employer was.
I believe it was this loyalty team that reached out to me last week not 10 minutes after I tweeted about Apple's suspicious search of a private apartment in 2011. A member of Apple's "Employee Relations Threat Assessment & Workplace Violence" team emailed me about some vague security concern. While I agreed to cooperate, I asked to keep our conversations in writing, noting my ongoing National Labor Relations Board investigation.
Within hours of this request, I was fired. Apple accused me of not complying with the request. I was shocked. I felt retaliated against. I still don't know what to make of it, and I'm terribly disappointed in Apple.
If Apple acts like a government, should we hold it accountable as we would a country?
When I consider how Apple may remedy its relationship with its employees, I think about my studies at the University of Oxford this summer: I studied transitional justice, or how to rebuild societies following authoritarian dictatorships with systemic human-rights violations. I wonder: If Apple is another kind of state, should we hold it accountable as we would a recovering dictatorship? Doing so would require us to recognize that employees in big tech — from retail to corporate workers — are essentially the subjects of arbitrary private governments, a situation that needs to be rectified through organizing and regulation.
In California, the Silenced No More Act, written by state Sen. Connie Leyva and Ifeoma Ozoma, a former Pinterest employee, would protect employees who speak out about workplace misconduct, even if they've signed a nondisclosure agreement. The Securities and Exchange Commission is also considering requiring companies to disclose workforce turnover, skills training, benefits, pay, and diversity, which may bring a degree of accountability to Apple's otherwise opaque workplace culture. Ozoma has also partnered with Nia Impact Capital to file a shareholder resolution condemning Apple's use of arbitration, nondisclosure, or nondisparagement agreements that often prevent employees from speaking out against harmful corporate culture.
Collective bargaining and unionization may allow workers a greater voice at the company and instill a bill of rights that preserves their basic dignity, but Apple has been unsurprisingly resistant to this type of worker organizing. Truly holding Apple accountable like a nation-state would require the company to redress wrongdoings past and present and hold its perpetrators responsible. A method for doing so can be found in the three A's in the training manual of all Apple retail employees: acknowledge, align, and assure.
Apple's executives could acknowledge the validity of employees' concerns over these systemic issues, agree they'd also be concerned if they were in our shoes, and then assure us they'll resolve the issues.
If my firing is any indication, they won't do so willingly.
A spokesperson for Apple told Insider: "We are and have always been deeply committed to creating and maintaining a positive and inclusive workplace. 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."