Last week, software engineer Cher Scarlett left Apple upon reaching a settlement with the company following months of workplace activism. Scarlett, who worked at Apple for a year and a half, is perhaps best known for her work with #AppleToo, an employee activist movement that seeks to collect and publicize concerns about pay equity, harassment, and other issues at the company. “I didn’t feel like I could feasibly continue to work and also advocate for others publicly,” Scarlett told me. “I felt like there was no place for me there.”
Scarlett was the last publicly known leader of the months-old movement still at Apple. While Scarlett left voluntarily, two other activist employees did not. Fellow #AppleToo leader Janneke Parrish, who worked on Apple Maps as a program manager, was fired in October, and former senior engineering program manager Ashley Gjøvik, an activist who was not part of #AppleToo, was fired in September. Both were terminated over the course of leak investigations. I interviewed the three of them and, based on their accounts, a pattern emerged about the experiences they say they had at the company after they began advocating for employee rights.
Scarlett and Parrish helped to found the #AppleToo movement in August to give employees a way to sound off about incidents of discrimination and mistreatment that they’d allegedly experienced at the company. Scarlett, Parrish, and other organizers who remained anonymous began collecting anonymous reports from people at Apple and publishing selections on Medium, which attracted national press attention. It was an uncharacteristic wave of employee advocacy at Apple, a company that even among its tight-lipped Silicon Valley peers has long been known for its secretiveness.
Scarlett had also been active in trying to get more information about wages at the company after some early poking around led her to believe there were pay gaps. Employees had tried to conduct a voluntary wage survey in Apple’s internal Slack, but according to Scarlett, HR shut down the survey. Believing this was illegal, she started another survey outside of the company’s Slack.* She filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board in September alleging that Apple “engaged in coercive and suppressive activity that has enabled abuse and harassment of organizers of protected concerted activity.” Labor laws dictate that employee are allowed to discuss wages with one another.
It was also colleagues, and not just leadership, who made Scarlett’s experience at Apple more difficult. She says that co-workers told her that leadership asked them not to engage with her at all, and that she also faced general hostility from certain corners of the workforce. One of the people on her team wrote a lengthy email to her stating that he and others no longer trusted her because of her organizing efforts. On the social network app Blind, where people at the same company can talk to each other anonymously, Apple employees accused her of hurting the company. One Blind user even doxed her, disclosing her contact information and her previous name, which she had changed due to a safety concern from her past. And in Slack, employees accused her of leaking details from an all-hands meeting in September—about vaccination policies and Epic Games’ lawsuit against the company—to the Verge. She denies doing so. Scarlett, who has bipolar I disorder, said the accusations affected her health enough that she went on leave in September. While Apple did help her take safety precautions in the wake of the doxing incident, Scarlett said the company denied her request to tell employees to stop targeting her.
When Scarlett returned from leave in early November, she still felt hostility. “I felt like it didn’t get better. I felt like it got worse. I was met with an immovable force,” she said of the antagonism from some of her colleagues, adding that this isolation from her team and generally being deflated from her experiences at the company led her to quit. Scarlett eventually reached a settlement with Apple, withdrew her NLRB complaint, and had her last day on Friday. (Scarlett said she was restricted from discussing the settlement and the complaint.)
Scarlett described her experience as influenced by a faction of the company’s ranks inhospitable to the transparency she was advocating for, a backlash that leadership either permitted or didn’t stop. In contrast, Apple management aggressively moved to fire Janneke Parrish, the other public leader of #AppleToo, during a leak investigation in October. Higher-ups at Apple reportedly suspected that she was the one who leaked the September all-hands meeting, though Parrish has denied this. Apple’s investigators demanded that she hand over her work devices, which she did, but not before deleting some personal data like contact information from political canvassing and her Robinhood app. (Apple reportedly encourages, and at times pretty much requires, employees to merge their personal accounts and activities with devices they use for work.) Apple accused Parrish of interfering with the investigation by deleting information, and fired her.
Parrish filed a complaint against Apple to the NLRB in early November, alleging that her termination was an act of retaliation for her activism. She told me that she was also subject to other forms of retaliation while still at the company. “There was a degree of isolation where my management became more reluctant to give me assignments or to speak to me,” she said. “It’s more subtle, but it’s very much still isolation and still has a chilling effect, saying that if you continue down this path, there are repercussions for your career here.” Parrish said that HR requested several meetings with her in which they collected more information about her organizing and tried to minimize the concerns that the #AppleToo movement was raising.
Ashley Gjøvik wasn’t associated with #AppleToo—she says her activism ran “in parallel” with the movement—but was also fired, in September. Her description of the pushback she faced from Apple echoes the accounts of other activists. Gjøvik, who worked at Apple for more than six years, began raising concerns internally about workplace safety and sexism at the company in March, and eventually began speaking to the press. She told me she was singled out at work as a result of her advocacy. “I heard from my old team that they were having staff meetings talking about the ‘Ashley issue,’ ” Gjøvik said, and added that her managers were also being unreasonably short with her. They instructed her not to talk to co-workers about her concerns. In early September, Gjøvik received an email from Apple requesting a meeting for an intellectual property investigation. She attempted to negotiate, stipulating that she would be willing as long as there was a written record of the discussion. Apple interpreted her request as a rejection of the meeting and subsequently fired her for failing to cooperate, without ever explicitly telling her what she was suspected of leaking. (However, she thinks it may have had something to do with tweets containing a selfie and already-public information about ear scanning, which Gizmodo documented here.)
In response to a detailed list of questions about these three cases, Apple spokesperson Josh Rosenstock said, “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.”
In both Gjøvik’s and Parrish’s cases, Apple justified their terminations as being part of its efforts to crack down on leaks. “Even coming under suspicion of leaking is a career killer, not just at Apple, but across the tech industry,” said Parrish. Given that cloud, she believes that Apple can use leak investigations as an easy way to root out undesirables whether or not they actually leaked anything. “That is very much a tactic Apple uses to discourage organizers,” she said. Scarlett suspects that she was avoided facing a similarly invasive leak investigation because she hadn’t done anything personal with her work devices.
Companies are generally justified in taking action against IP and product leaks, though U.S. labor laws protect employees to speak freely about workplace matters like discrimination or pay. Using IP leak investigations as a way to discourage people from speaking out against workplace issues should technically violate labor laws, though such laws have toothless protections for whistleblowers and are subject to interpretation by whomever is in charge of the NLRB at any given time. According to organizers, by conflating IP leaks with workplace whistleblowing, Apple can better enforce a culture of secrecy. As evidence they point to a memo that CEO Tim Cook released in September stating “people who leak confidential information do not belong” at Apple, which referred to both product information and details of all-hands meetings. Gjøvik used this memo as evidence in a NLRB complaint she filed in October, which alleges that the company’s tendency to equate whistleblowing and activism with leaking violates labor protections. “Someone needs to intervene,” she said. “If we can get the NLRB to send something to Apple employees saying they do have rights … that’s a first step.” Apple isn’t the only tech giant that’s come under scrutiny over this issue: The NLRB reached a settlement with Google in 2019 requiring the company to inform employees that they are allowed to speak publicly about workplace concerns.
The recent firings and departures of activist employees presents a challenge for the future of organizing at the company, though Scarlett believes #AppleToo will continue. “It absolutely will survive,” she said. “The group still exists, the group is still talking, the group is still growing.” The movement had one of its demands met over the weekend when Apple posted an internal memo informing employees that they had the right to “internally or externally” discuss “wages, hours, or working conditions.” In September, #AppleToo had published an open letter requesting that the company release such a statement.
A current employee and member of the movement (who asked not to be named or directly quoted) told me that #AppleToo still has leaders on the inside, though the movement might be a bit quiet for the time being. The remaining members are anonymous, which may protect them from being singled out for investigations or blowback from peers and managers. The employee said it’s unlikely others will identify themselves in the same way that Parrish and Scarlett did until speaking out becomes less of a risk to one’s career. Parrish hopes that members will eventually get to the point where they can step out from behind the curtain. “A movement has a lot more clout and credibility when there are names and faces and human beings associated with it,” she said. “It’s a little more difficult with people being anonymous, but not impossible. And certainly over time, we’ll see more and more organizers come forward.”
Correction, Nov. 23, 2021: This piece originally misstated that Cher Scarlett had started a wage survey within Apple’s Slack. She had launched a separate survey outside of the company’s Slack.