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Technology Employees Risk Pay And Benefits To Push For Change—And In Many Cases, It’s Working

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When Raksha Muthukumar quit her software engineering job on the search team at Google last summer, it was a decision that had been brewing in her mind for some time. She had joined the company in October 2018 after graduating from Georgia Tech — just in time to experience some of Google’s most tumultuous years.

Muthukumar says she participated in Google’s global walkout in the end of 2018, when 20,000 Googlers left their desk for a day to protest how the company handled sexual harassment cases. The next year, she says she watched as Google fired the “Thanksgiving Four” — four employees who all had organized and participated in protests around the holidays to stop the company from doing what they perceived to be unethical work, including contracts with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection department. 

Then the pandemic happened, and Muthukumar found herself wanting to do more. She got involved with co-workers organizing an employee union at Google. After George Floyd’s death, she became a jail support volunteer, helping arrested protesters make bail or get a ride home. She sent out a list of links and resources for police reform groups to Google co-workers in case they wanted to donate — one of which included a GoFundMe page with anti-police language. A team member reported her to human resources, which warned her not to do it again.          

Muthukumar left in June 2021 to work for YA-YA Network, a nonprofit that helps train and support youth activists. “My work was feeling superficial,” she said. “I would go do jail support and help ten people. Then I’m at work, where I’m doing a micro-tweak on the UX or something, and maybe a lot of people will see that, but ‘the big picture-ness’ of my work was dissolving as the world felt like it was getting worse.” 

Muthukumar is among a wave of young technology employees who are becoming increasingly activist about their companies’ stances on hiring, diversity, social justice and a range of other issues, from work for government agencies to policies on geopolitical issues including censorship in China. While the most high-profile example may be Frances Haughen, a former data scientist at Facebook who leaked tens of thousands of internal documents to highlight practices she found objectionable at the social media giant, the movement spans most of the largest U.S. technology companies and appears to be growing.          

Dissenting employees now number in the thousands and work at companies including Google, Facebook, Apple and Netflix. Many say they are willing to risk losing high-paying jobs, benefits and stability to fight for what they perceive to be inequalities in the workplace and inequities in their employers’ missions. In some cases, tech companies are being forced to change their stances or messaging after messy public controversies provoked by their own restive workers.

“Employees are flexing their muscles on a wide range of issues, including pushing for higher pay, increased work from home, and greater sick and holiday leave,” says Nicholas Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University. “It is also empowering employees to push for improved behavior by their firms around climate, diversity and social ethics.”

The surge in organizing and employee unrest has led to real consequences.  Former Facebook employee Haughen, for instance, painstakingly collected and then released embarrassing internal documents after she saw her company repeatedly, she said, choose profits over “what was good for the public.” Revelations in the documents led to a barrage of negative publicity, a congressional hearing and requests from state attorneys generals for more information about how the social network handles vaccine misinformation. 

“We’ve always been a company that deeply values expression, and we have employee policies that outline the company’s expectations of our people regarding respectful communications,” said Kadia Koroma, a spokesperson for Facebook — which renamed itself to Meta during the Haughen-led crisis — when asked about whether the company supports such acts of employee activism. Google, meanwhile, declined to comment for this story.

Apple, a company that boasts strong employee and customer loyalty but has also developed a reputation for corporate secrecy, is being forced to deal with an increasingly loud and disgruntled workforce. Apple has received nine complaints filed with the National Labor Relations Board for unfair labor charges in this year — a surge from the four complaints the iPhone maker fielded in the ten years preceding 2021. 

One of those complaints came from Janneke Parrish, a former Apple program manager who was fired in October after Apple alleged that she leaked a transcript of an all-hands meeting to a media outlet. Parrish says employees didn’t start organizing in a unified way until this year, when they realized that collective action could be effective. In April, Apple hired Antonio Garcia Martinez to lead its advertising product technology teams, despite employee complaints about passages from his 2016 memoir Chaos Monkey that included disparaging comments about women in Silicon Valley. More than 2,000 Apple employees signed a petition protesting his hiring. By the next month, Garcia Martinez’s Apple employment was terminated.

“That was an outcome that we did not expect,” said Parrish. “Apple leadership does not have a history of listening to employee activists, or does Apple have a history of a group of employees coming together to advocate. So to see that outcome really changed the rules and changed the entire future of activism at Apple.”

When Apple announced in June that it would end 100% remote work and that employees would be expected to be present in the office three days per week, they came together again in protest. Petitions began to circulate, garnering more than 1,000 signatures. Apple has not acquiesced to the petition, but pushed back the date of office return to 2022 due to the Covid-19 Delta variant. Apple declined to comment on the matter. 

Later in the summer, Cher Scarlett, a software engineer at Apple, tried to collect wage data through a survey to determine whether there were pay discrepancies at the company, particularly between men and women in the same positions. According to Scarlett, her wage data survey was one of several that had been started this year by other Apple employees, and the previous surveys had been flagged by the company. “The person who started the other survey told me that the company said it was a ‘prohibited survey’ because it gathered diversity and inclusion information in the form of gender,” Scarlett said. Under the direction of Apple’s human resources team, those surveys had to remove the gender column, says Scarlett. 

“We are and have always been deeply committed to creating and maintaining a positive and inclusive workplace,” said a spokesperson for Apple. “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.”

After Scarlett started her own wage transparency survey, she states that Apple colleagues began telling her that their managers were telling direct reports not to participate in Scarlett’s wage transparency survey or discuss their pay. “People were being told not to engage with me at all, that it would be detrimental to their careers,” Scarlett said. Despite all this, Scarlett states that the company’s human resources team never reached out to her about her survey. 

She began to share her wage transparency conflict on Twitter. “If you are an Apple employee and you were told by your leadership or the People team or Employee Relations not to participate in the wage transparency survey, not to talk about your pay, or were coercively questioned about it: please reach out to me or the NLRB Oakland office,” she tweeted in early September, which garnered nearly 400 retweets and 1,790 likes.

As Scarlett’s presence grew on social media, she started receiving direct messages and e-mails from former and current Apple colleagues, with stories of discrimination in the workplace, particularly in its retail stores. “I was trying to figure out a way that I could help all of these hundreds of people who are coming to me,” Scarlett said. She met with a few other Apple employees who felt similarly strongly about these stories, including Parrish, and they decided to start #AppleToo, an employee-activist group, to document these stories that ranged from sexism to racism, homophobia and more. 

To date, #AppleToo has received stories from nearly 800 former and current Apple employees, of which over 60% are from retail employees while the rest are from corporate and the Apple Care teams, according to Scarlett. While many ask for their stories not to be published, some give explicit permission to do so. Parrish helps manage the Medium account for #AppleToo, which has published about 30 of these stories. 

Shortly after #AppleToo formed, Parrish says, the company launched an investigation into whether she had leaked a recording of an Apple all-hands meeting to Vox Media. While Parrish contends that she did not leak the recording, she was fired after the company said it determined that she “engaged in conduct in violation of Apple policies including, but not limited to, interfering with an investigation by deleting files on your company provided equipment after being specifically instructed not to do so.” Parrish is still seeking her next role, and continues to publish stories on the #AppleToo platform.

Scarlett, meanwhile, left the company on November 19. “I had a dispute with Apple and the details of that are confidential,” she said. “I want to work somewhere where I can go to my leadership and talk openly about any sort of issues that people are coming to me with,” she said. “I do have a large platform and I want people to know they can come to me and I will get them get help.”

On Scarlett’s last day, Apple updated an internal human resources website with new language regarding employees’ rights. “Our policies do not restrict employees from speaking freely about their wages, hours, or working conditions,” it stated. “We encourage any employee with concerns to raise them in the way they feel most comfortable, internally or externally, including through their manager, any Apple manager, People Support, People Business Partner, or Business Conduct.”

Netflix, meanwhile, faced arguably its biggest public worker unrest and public relations crisis this year when dozens of its LGBTQ employees and allies organized a walkout in its Los Angeles office to protest the streaming platform’s decision to host Dave Chapelle’s sixth and final stand-up special, The Closer. The trans community and its allies have said that the 72-minute episode contains transphobic content that promotes bigotry. Ted Sarandos, chief executive of Netflix, sent company-wide emails defending the decision in the name of creative freedom. “There are going to be things that you might feel are harmful,” Sarandos wrote in one e-mail. “But we are trying to entertain a world with varying tastes and varying sensibilities and various beliefs, and I think this special was consistent with that.” 

Terra Field, a software engineer at Netflix, was one of the trans employees who spoke out against her employer in a Twitter thread that was retweeted nearly 19,000 times. “The company doesn’t think that the content is transphobic but of course, the people who are deciding that it is not transphobic are cis people,” said Field. “And cis people don’t get to decide what is, and is not, transphobic.” 

Shortly after tweeting her viral thread, Field was suspended by the company, but reinstated shortly thereafter. The company reportedly stated she was suspended for trying to attend a quarterly business review meeting in protest that she had not been invited to. Despite her employer’s decision to back the Chapelle special, Field found appreciation for other outcomes from the incident. “Internally, a lot more people are ‘out’ at the company and not hiding who they are,” she said. “And we just saw a groundswell of support from allies that I don’t think would have happened two years ago or even five years ago,” she said.        

Netflix did not respond to requests for comment.         

While employee activism within technology companies has surged since the pandemic, both employees and experts who follow the industry contend that the trend is just getting started.

“There’s definitely a movement,” Muthukumar says. “The Facebook whistleblowing, Netflix walking out. It feels like every week, tech workers are organizing and doing something powerful. I think people are just realizing that we have more in common as workers than we do with the management who ends up setting the vision for our companies.”