Contributors

St. Steven

Examining work culture at Apple.
 
 
By Dirk Olin
 
Although I am sure this will incur the wrath of Apple idolators the world over, I could not bring myself to join the recent beatification of the late Steve Jobs. The Wall Street Journal dubbed him “The Secular Prophet.” The New Yorker’s tribute cover portrayed him arriving at the pearly gates, where St. Peter was checking the list of heavenly admittees … on an iPad.
 
 
To be clear, I have been an utterly dedicated Apple customer for almost two decades. I don’t subscribe to the entire canon. Those interfaces aren’t always so “intuitive”; my iPhone connectivity is sometimes far from liquid fast; and my new MacBook Air is featherlight and powerful, but that came partly at the expense of a DVD drive. That said, I have found that the lineup of products, in general, has represented a quantum leap in the evolution of human computational fluency.
 
 
I even subscribe to the notion that Jobs enters the innermost circle in the pantheon of American innovators. He’s there with Edison and Ford, and I wish he’d lived longer to conjure up more tools of beauty, elegance, and convenience.
 
 
In The New Yorker, Nicholson Baker was eloquent in his distillation of the Jobs legacy: “Everyone who cares about music and art and movies and heroic comebacks and rich rewards and being able to carry several kinds of infinity around in your shirt pocket,” he wrote, “is taken aback by this sudden huge vacuuming-out of a titanic presence from our lives.”
 
 
Still, let us, as they say, “think different.”
 
 
I will not speak ill of the dead at a personal level, though there’s been plenty of that among various Jobs haters out there. I do not count myself among them. Rather, I leaven my praise for his elevation of the marketplace with a lament on his occasional exploitation of the workplace.
 
 
I don’t begrudge Jobs his famous devotion to protecting his own privacy. But his company’s opacity is another matter. If our sister publication, Corporate Responsibility Magazine, ranked the transparency records of all of the Russell 1000 (we publish only the “100 Best Corporate Citizens List”), Apple would have come in at #217 last year. Its ranking in the employee relations category would have been #415.
 
 
This resonates with reports on Apple’s workplace dynamic. Notwithstanding the tales of employees in sweatpants padding barefoot through the offices, many have described a culture of micromanagement and intimidation. Career advancement is seen as hit or miss. And the company policy of no note- taking during meetings hardly inspires confidence.
 
 
Worse has been the company’s behavior with respect to its operations in China. Hundreds of workers at a Taiwanese-owned iPhone and Apple touchscreen component manufacturer in Suzhou became sick in the summer of 2009. In the face of skyrocketing demand, the factory had apparently substituted an illegal chemical to speed up its manufacturing process.
 
 
At issue was something called n-hexane. Exposure to it caused dozens of workers to faint and complain of headaches. Others suffered nerve damage in their hands and feet. Ongoing n-hexane exposure has been linked to fertility problems and other issues, but the ultimate effect of exposure to the toxin for these workers remains unclear. Sadly, by most accounts, Apple’s corporate response was equally unclear. Although it claimed the matter had been solved in its 2010 corporate supplier report, former workers say they still have received no compensation for their sicknesses and no information from the company about how their medical conditions might change down the line.
 
 
When Apple debuted its fifth-generation iPhone on the eve of Jobs’ death, new CEO Tim Cook received mixed reviews for a presentation that was “competent” but “not inspiring.” With Google’s Android phones gaining momentum, and the Jobs mystique gone, it will be interesting to see what the enduring corporate legacy looks like.
 
 
“There’s no question Apple is going to go through a time of transformation. There’s a lot of risk around the brand,” says Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management who has advised clients like Eli Lilly & Co. “A lot of pressure will fall on Tim Cook to step up. The hard part is, he’s not Steve Jobs, nor can he try to be.”
 
 
The biblical St. Stephen was martyred for speaking truth to power. The hagiography attends on his very name, stephanos being the Greek word for “crown.” Only the coming years will reveal whether our own St. Steven has bequeathed an enduringly valuable crown to his successor. But the heir could start by replacing the company work cult with a more sustainable company work culture.
 

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