Apple, like many tech companies, has an intimidating employment agreement that it makes employees sign to protect its trade secrets. Though the agreement is in place to prevent workers from sharing internal details of Apple’s products and processes, it is unclear whether they can speak out about working conditions, according to a group of activists and Apple shareholders.
Now, that group is pushing the company to add language that makes clearer exception for cases of workplace harassment and discrimination. Apple has refused. Last week, they filed a shareholder resolution to pressure Apple to make the change.
“We approached Apple in good faith and encouraged them to take a leadership role here,” says Ifeoma Ozoma, who’s helping to lead the effort. “Their response was to use the same employee handbook that they’ve reportedly been using to silence workers as an excuse to say no. We responded that this wasn’t acceptable — and curiously haven’t heard back.”
Ozoma is co-sponsor of the Silenced No More Act, a California bill that would protect employees who speak out about workplace misconduct, even if they’ve signed an NDA. On August 30th, the bill passed the California state legislature and advanced to Governor Newsom’s desk.
The effort stems from Ozoma’s own experience breaking an NDA to speak out about discrimination at Pinterest. In California, employees technically have the right to discuss sex discrimination. But there’s nothing that protects those who go public with experiences of racism — a gap that left Ozoma vulnerable to litigation when she decided to speak out.
As the Silenced No More Act inches closer to becoming law, Ozoma has been pressuring tech companies to proactively adopt the following language in their employment agreements: “Nothing in this agreement prevents you from discussing or disclosing information about unlawful acts in the workplace, such as harassment or discrimination or any other conduct that you have reason to believe is unlawful.”
Ozoma says Apple lawyers declined to add the language, noting that it’s already covered in the company’s Business Conduct Policy.
However, in recent months, some Apple employees have voiced concerns that the company is doing exactly that: making it difficult for them to discuss wages and working conditions. Ozoma says there’s also a key difference between adding this language to an employee handbook and putting it in an employment agreement which would legally protect workers who speak out.
Apple’s internal misconduct policy also says that employees can be fired for “Engaging in activities or behaviors that violate Apple policies,” “Interfering or failing to cooperate with an investigation,” as well as simply “insubordination.”
On Friday, Nia Impact Capital filed a shareholder resolution saying that concealment clauses — or employment agreements that contain broad arbitration, nondisclosure, or non-disparagement agreements — are bad business.
“We filed this shareholder resolution at Apple because a company’s use of concealment clauses is both a governance and a diversity concern,” says Kristin Hull, CEO of Nia Impact. “Concealment clauses block investors from understanding true workplace conditions and may undermine diversity, equity and inclusion programs. The Board, as the representatives of the investor, should be concerned about the role concealment clauses play in enabling harmful corporate cultures to continue, hidden from stakeholders.”
The firm owns 38,921.34 Apple shares — a stake currently worth roughly $6 billion.
If Apple does not make the requested changes, the resolution may go before a vote at the next shareholder meeting.
Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Verge.