The women calling out Apple’s handling of misconduct claims

The women calling out Apple’s handling of misconduct claims

Megan Mohr was five years into her Apple career when, in 2013, a male colleague took advantage of her after a platonic night out drinking together.

After the colleague drove her home and helped her inside, she briefly fell asleep before waking to the sound of clicking. The colleague had removed her shirt and bra. He was snapping photos, and grinning.

Mohr previously had a bad experience with human resources — known internally as Apple’s People group — when another colleague had broken into her accounts and harassed her, leading her to file a police report. HR didn’t listen well or help in any way, she says, so this time she didn’t bother. “I was afraid of retaliation and knew HR wouldn’t have my best interest in mind,” she says.

But inspired by the #MeToo movement, Mohr decided in late 2018 to tell Apple of the illicit photos incident. She had no evidence and wasn’t calling for an investigation. She just thought HR should be aware of the person’s character and requested they never be put in the same department.

Mohr thought this was a modest ask, but the email exchange seen by the Financial Times soon turned rigid and defensive. The HR representative displayed little empathy or experience dealing with sexual misconduct. He analogised her experience to “a minor traffic accident” to explain how Apple couldn’t really get involved.

“Although what he did was reprehensible as a person and potentially criminal, as an Apple employee he hasn’t violated any policy in the context of his Apple work,” HR wrote. “And because he hasn’t violated any policy we will not prevent him seeking employment opportunities that are aligned with his goals and interests.”

Mohr wasn’t asking for the colleague to be punished, knowing she couldn’t prove her claims. But to her surprise, HR suggested proof wouldn’t really matter anyway.

Megan Mohr claims a male colleague at Apple took advantage of her after a platonic night out drinking together © Brandon Thibodeaux/FT

“Unfortunately the incident wasn’t in the context of Apple work [so] it’s very likely that an Apple investigation would have returned ‘no findings’ and no discipline would be issued,” HR told her. “Even if the offender would have admitted to taking the images.”

An HR professional with 25 years of experience, who declined to be named, calls this response “shocking”, adding that in their experience: “Behaviours like that often come out of a culture, they don’t come out of nowhere.”

Mohr quit her Apple job as a fraud prevention specialist in January, after 14 years, frustrated by its bureaucracy, secretive culture, and what she perceived as fewer opportunities for women. Now she is asking Apple to take a hard look at its policies. “I just want Apple to be the company it pretends to be for its customers,” she says.

Not thinking differently

In interviews with 15 female Apple employees, both current and former, the Financial Times has found that Mohr’s frustrating experience with the People group has echoes across at least seven Apple departments spanning six US states.

The women shared allegations of Apple’s apathy in the face of misconduct claims. Eight of them say they were retaliated against, while seven found HR to be disappointing or counterproductive.

This story is based on those interviews and discussions with other employees, internal emails from Apple’s People team, four exit contracts written by lawyers for Apple and anonymous employee reviews.

The women the FT spoke to for this story represent only a tiny share of Apple’s 165,000 employees globally. And the company has shown its determination to empower women workers in a Silicon Valley long criticised for its “bro culture”. Its annual inclusion and diversity report says the company is “building a culture where everybody belongs”, and reports an 87 per cent increase in the number of female employees in leadership roles globally between 2014 and 2021.

In 2018, CEO Tim Cook spoke of the company’s commitment to “helping more women assume leadership roles across the tech sector and beyond”, launching an initiative to train and mentor female entrepreneurs building apps. In the company’s internal 31-page onboarding document called “Apple Start”, the iPhone maker holds itself to a high standard, telling new employees about the “Apple difference”, how it fosters teamwork and innovation, and “does things differently”.

Yet the stories shared by women at Apple indicate the world’s largest company is falling short in building the culture it aspires to. The accounts collected by the FT paint a portrait of a People team that acts less like a safe place for employees to go with complaints and more like a risk mitigation unit that protects bad managers. In six cases, women said speaking up had cast them as bad team members and resulted in their departure. In three instances, Apple offered multiple months of salary in exchange for not disparaging the company or being held liable.

In response to the FT’s findings, Apple said in a statement it works hard to thoroughly investigate all misconduct allegations, and that it strives to create “an environment where employees feel comfortable reporting any issues.” 

The company acknowledged it had not always met those ambitions. “There are some accounts raised that do not reflect our intentions or our policies and we should have handled them differently, including certain exchanges reported in this story,” Apple said. “As a result, we will make changes to our training and processes.” It declined to comment on specific cases “out of respect for the privacy of individuals involved.”

Demonstrators at a #MeToo Survivors’ March in Los Angeles, California
The the #MeToo movement has inspired some female Apple employees to come forward with their claims of harrassment © David McNew/Getty Images

Insiders say it’s a matter of priorities. Apple “is so singularly obsessed about making the best products, that there are blinders to everything else”, says Chris Deaver, an HR business partner at Apple from 2015 to 2019. “This is an engineering-led organisation. It can be a bit logos-heavy. A bit detached from emotions.”

Deaver, who spearheaded a cultural initiative called “Different Together” to stimulate more collaboration, adds that a “middle block of leaders” had anchored their image to “the wrong archetype,” namely the Hollywood version of Steve Jobs that humiliates people in meetings.

“There were some managers who thought, ‘that’s what success looks like’,” he says. “From what I saw, a lot of that is going away, but there are remnants of that.”

Orit Mizrachi, who spent six years at Apple until late 2017, mostly as a legal administrative assistant, went to HR on two occasions alleging a hostile work environment. She complained of being “bullied and harassed” by her manager after taking leave to be with her dying father, and in another instance said a colleague was texting her sexual messages at all hours of the day.

HR “shrugged and put it under the rug”, she says, then eventually laid her off on the grounds that it needed to trim headcount. Apple offered her three months of salary, including a lump-sum payment “for alleged emotional distress”, in exchange for agreeing she would “fully and completely release, discharge and agree to hold harmless Apple . . . from all claims, judgments and liabilities”.

Mizrachi refused to sign. “My friends said I’m an idiot, ‘take the money’,” she says. “But you can’t just pay me to shut up. You have to have a moral compass.”

Visitors make their way into the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue in New York
Visitors make their way into the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue in New York. ‘Emily’, an employee at an outlet in the city, says she found HR counterproductive when she went for help © Victor J Blue/Bloomberg

Emily, an Apple Store “Genius” in New York who asked to be identified by a pseudonym, says she found HR counterproductive when she went for help, in 2021, describing two instances of serious sexual assault, including being raped by a colleague who offered to drive her home from work.

Emily says she felt that HR treated her like she was the problem. “I was told [the alleged rapist] went on a ‘career experience’ for six months and they said: ‘maybe you’ll be better by the time he’s back?’”

She says the superficial “investigation” into her allegations was a jarring mix of “amateur hour” and intense questioning on sensitive topics. Emily asked to be transferred to another store in New York, was declined, and still works at the same location.

Margaret Anderson, an IP attorney at Apple from 2012 to 2015, describes a “toxic work environment” and says “the gaslighting can be insane”. She recalled that when a male vice-president wanted to get her fired, he relied on allegations so absurd that they included events predating her arrival at Apple.

In response, she drafted a booklet refuting the allegations, but HR declined to read it and literally “threw it across the table” at her, she says. “If a manager wants to get rid of you, they’ll get rid of you. HR will do whatever the manager wants.” 

A ‘tsunami’ of claims

The bulk of accounts on the employer review websites Glassdoor and Comparably are overwhelmingly favourable to Apple.

Based on tens of thousands of anonymous reviews, the platforms indicate that employees admire CEO Tim Cook and other top executives, and that they feel well paid. Apple’s overall culture is respected and it scores in the upper tier for diversity and inclusion.

Yet behind the headline figures, the data on these sites also solidify a distinct problem with office culture and middle-management, particularly for women.

Apple iPhone SE3 smartphones on display at the Apple flagship store in New York
In 2018, CEO Tim Cook spoke of the iPhone maker’s commitment to ‘helping more women assume leadership roles across the tech sector and beyond’, launching an initiative to train and mentor female entrepreneurs building apps © Gabby Jones/Bloomberg

When men are asked to rate their direct manager, for example, the average score is 71, whereas for women it is 37, according to Comparably.

When employees from each of Apple’s 14 departments are asked to rate the corporate culture, HR — which arguably has the best insight across all operations — gives an average “C” rating of 65 out of 100, tying legal for the lowest score. By contrast, the HR units of Google and Meta each give A+ scores.

On Glassdoor, burnout culture and problems with direct managers are the biggest complaints. “There is zero accountability for bad managers and so there are toxic teams that go undetected,” is a sentiment echoed in 685 reviews. “No sense of how mental health [affects] different people. If you suffer from it and take time off, you’ll most likely be terminated,” is echoed in 193 reviews.

Similar complaints were published on the web last year by hundreds of anonymous Apple employees in a movement called #AppleToo, suggesting negative sentiment is more widespread than commonly understood. Since renamed Apple Together, the movement’s Discord channel has doubled membership in the past two months to 770 people.

The company could face a raft of legal challenges from current employees who believe they were discriminated against. A lawyer at a major law firm in California says they are dealing with “a tsunami of miscellaneous claims against Apple”. 

Deaver, the former HR business partner, pins much of the blame for Apple’s apparent problem with middle-management accountability on Apple’s drive for “secrecy”. 

In a May article for the US business magazine Fast Company, he called secrecy a “fundamental premise” for Apple surprising and delighting consumers, but one that also had “dark sides” for employees, including a culture of “infighting” and “tremendous friction and burnout”. Secrecy had created “paralysing” dilemmas for “the vast majority of engineers”, with some workers “pushing personal agendas”, others “hoarding” critical information, and “one employee after another” worried that if they took the wrong action they would end up “fired or in jail”, he wrote.

Some meetings ended, he added, with people saying they “wanted to leave or to ‘never work with that one person again’.”

Breaking the code of silence

Internally, signs that Apple employees were agitating for change emerged in late 2019, when Apple introduced Slack, the messaging platform which allows for greater collaborative working across teams.

Apple had long been known for its rigid barriers between divisions, so Slack — with its ability for employees to create niche channels on hot-button issues — became a catalyst for many Apple workers to communicate with each other for the first time.

Mohr described Slack as liberating and cathartic, as it helped her see that the managerial problems she was experiencing were systemic issues across geographies and departments. But it also crushed her hopes of a quick fix.

“People in all areas of Apple were talking about the same kinds of problems, the same lacklustre responses,” says Mohr. “It made me realise that I’ll probably like another Apple job in a different area better, but it won’t be the 180° that I have in my mind.”

By last year, discussions in Apple’s Slack channels were spilling on to Twitter. After Apple Maps program manager Janneke Parrish and senior engineering program manager Ashley Gjovik took allegations of a toxic work environment public, they quickly found themselves jobless.

Apple disputes that they were fired for speaking out — and an Apple guide for employees says it “does not tolerate retaliation against an employee filing a report, so you can feel safe reporting your concern” — but both women tell the FT they feel Apple used pretexts to sack them.

At the same time, some employees used Slack to petition thousands of colleagues for their salaries in an effort to test Apple’s claims that there was little or no gender wage gap.

Apple then tightened the rules on who could create what Slack channels, an act considered unlawful by Cher Scarlett, a self-taught software engineer who had joined Apple’s security team. She filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging the suppression of worker organising.

Cher Scarlett
Cher Scarlett, a self-taught software engineer who had joined Apple’s security team, filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging the company suppressed worker organising © Kyle Johnson/New York Times/Redux/eyevine

Scarlett’s actions irked Apple, which offered her a $213,000 severance package last autumn. She calls the offer “life-changing,” but refused to sign it because Apple demanded she hand over a “cover letter” for the NLRB that included sensitive details of other employees clamouring for change.

“That’s their playbook,” Scarlett says. “Offer me enough money to pay off my lawyers and debt, and they wanted a list of people to retaliate against. How do I talk about how egregious that truly is?”

Apple agreed to take out that demand, but it made her payout contingent on Scarlett withdrawing her NLRB complaint and to not “encourage or incite anyone to file” other charges.

Scarlett signed, and received the first of five payments. But just days later she intentionally broke the agreement upon encountering a letter from Apple to the Securities and Exchange Commission saying the company “supports the rights of its employees and contractors to speak freely” about harassment and discrimination.

Scarlett believed she had “proof” this was false, so she sacrificed the payout and showed her exit arrangement to the media — prompting treasurers from eight US states to call on the SEC to investigate “whether or not Apple misled the Commission and investors”.

It’s impossible to know how widespread Apple’s use of non-disclosure agreements and concealment clauses is, says Ifeoma Ozoma, a public policy advocate behind the “Silenced No More Act” signed into California law last year, which makes it unlawful for companies to discourage or prohibit employees from discussing workplace issues.

“You can only know how many are used, and when they are used, when people break them,” Ozoma says.

An aerial view of the Apple Park campus in Cupertino, California
The Apple Park campus in Cupertino, California. Numerous former Apple employees say the code of secrecy — and what Apple’s onboarding document calls its ‘unwritten rules’ of culture — are drilled in from Day One © Sam Hall/Bloomberg

Numerous former Apple employees say the code of secrecy — and what Apple’s onboarding document calls its “unwritten rules” of culture — are drilled in from Day One.

One former employee says that on their first day the press team told him: “If you leak, and it gets out there: we’ll take you out in a burlap sack. We’ve done it before.” Another quips that their non-disclosure agreement was so scrupulous, “I think I signed over rights to my firstborn”. 

Investors have sided with employees who feel Apple can be too restrictive. In March, a majority of Apple shareholders approved a resolution demanding Apple publish more information about its use of concealment clauses. The company is now preparing a report as requested.

Even so, Apple’s board has yet to take a phone call from Kristin Hull, CEO of Nia Impact Capital, the investor behind the resolution. She argues that the board’s reticence is indicative of cultural problems going beyond just lower-level managers. “It’s middle-management, but the tone gets set at the top,” she says.

Jayna’s story

The most prominent person to come forward so far is Jayna Whitt, a director in Apple’s legal department who joined in 2006 and would later play roles leading patent litigation against Android devices — battles that Steve Jobs once likened to “thermonuclear war”.

When Whitt informed HR in April 2021 of serious allegations that a colleague had hacked her devices and threatened her life after an abusive relationship, she assumed the claims would be taken seriously.

Instead, she felt humiliated, exposed and less safe. Emailed responses seen by the FT from Apple’s Employee Relations unit — an investigative division of the People team — show Apple took little interest in allegations that took place outside of its campus.

But ER did say Whitt had “failed to act in a professional and work appropriate manner” in their meeting — a time when Whitt says she was begging for help and reliving trauma as she described the events. ER asked her to sign an official “Policy Violation Warning” for allowing a personal relationship to “affect your work performance”.

Livid, Whitt declined to sign the reprimand, sought legal advice, and in April 2022 she wrote a 2,800-word essay in The Lioness, a storytelling platform for whistleblowers, describing how a charming colleague turned out to be unpredictable and violent.

Whitt had deep reservations about publishing such personal information. She worried it would isolate her from colleagues, attract disbelief, and perhaps lead to further harassment.

Jayna Whitt standing in her garden
When Jayna Whitt informed HR in April 2021 of serious allegations that a colleague had hacked her devices and threatened her life after an abusive relationship, she assumed the claims would be taken seriously © Jason Henry/FT

But the unexpected happened. Unique as her experience was, her story of a hostile colleague — and Apple’s alleged apathy — resonated widely. She was flooded with supportive messages from current and former Apple workers.

Apple, meanwhile, suspended Whitt with pay, and launched an investigation into her “workplace behaviour”. For months, Whitt anticipated being fired, saying Apple would find a pretext to get rid of her. And in early July, Apple sacked her, justifying it on an indiscretion it found from six years ago. Whitt calls the indiscretion irrelevant.

She is now legally challenging Apple, alleging years of systematic gender and racial discrimination. “I was disadvantaged — this is how women struggle,” she says. “It’s not that I was passed over for promotions, it’s that the opportunities never came to me.”

Two years ago, Whitt says she couldn’t imagine viewing Apple poorly, let alone it being a legal adversary. But when Apple clamped down on gender-pay disparity channels on Slack and the Apple Together stories emerged, it opened her eyes.

“Had these stories not been coming out, I would not have been compelled to do the right thing, to blow up my career,” she says. “I could’ve just gone to be the head of IP somewhere. Instead I’m standing on the shoulders of these women.”

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