Apple recently made headlines with its controversial decision to prevent employees from seeking pay equity data. In doing so, the company may have violated worker protections and opened itself to litigation risk. While the outcome remains to be seen, one thing is clear: Apple’s actions should serve as a cautionary tale to organizations everywhere when it comes to the importance of cultivating pay transparency and the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace.

This year, Apple employees circulated three internal surveys asking their colleagues to provide voluntary information about their salary, as well as gender, race, ethnicity, and disability. The first survey was sent out last spring and garnered around 100 responses. It was then closed on the basis of containing personally identifying information, according to Apple’s Human Resources team. A second survey was later taken down for including a question on gender.

When employees created a third survey without the gender question, Apple allegedly closed it because it was hosted on the company’s corporate Box account.

While the company pointed to strict rules around employee data collection as the reason for closing the surveys, it appears there are no legal grounds for doing so. In fact, labor lawyers have weighed in on the matter, saying the company could be in violation of employee protections.

U.S. workers have the right to discuss their pay without retaliation from employers, especially when it comes to protected classes like women and underrepresented individuals. According to one employment lawyer, the surveys can be seen as a form of labor organizing, and Apple’s move to close them can be legally interpreted as an act of retaliation. Further, it may signal the organization has something to hide.

Apple has a tainted history with gender inequality, according to a CNBC TV article. In 2019, women employed by the company made 99.6 cents for every dollar men made, while underrepresented minorities made 99.7 cents for every dollar white employees made. A report published later that year said the problems had been resolved.

An issue in the U.K. revealed yet another discrepancy. Companies in the U.K. – and recently Ireland – are required to publish information about gender pay gaps. A report found that Apple’s mean and median gender pay gap for employees was 12% in favor of men, which is 5% below the overall gender pay gap in the U.K.

While the U.S. doesn’t have federally mandated gender pay gap reporting, a cultural shift toward pay equity is well underway, thanks to the Biden administration. Unequal pay and gender discrimination were major factors in a lawsuit recently filed by California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) against Activision Blizzard. It’s also worth noting that cities, counties, and states across the nation are passing salary history bans prohibiting employers from using wage history to determine a job candidate’s salary. Salary history bans help prevent the wage gap from widening by putting a stop to the perpetuation of low pay for protected class workers.

Companies can achieve DEI goals by creating a transparent, comfortable work environment for all. As precedent shows, good intentions aren’t good enough — U.S. employers will soon be obligated to demonstrate their commitments to DEI with actionable efforts. 

One way Apple can alleviate employee pay data information concerns is to revisit its DEI policies and allow employees to facilitate pay equity surveys. Such surveys not only open a forum for employees to provide valuable feedback but also demonstrate that leadership is listening, another key approach for achieving DEI goals.

Pay equity monitoring is yet another measure that could help Apple assuage employee fears and also help mitigate risk. Proactive and ongoing measurement is critical to successful DEI efforts, as demonstrated by a recent case involving Coca-Cola. The company re-shaped its hiring practices around DEI after a race discrimination class action lawsuit in 2000 only to backslide two decades later and find itself facing the kind of issues that prompted its policy change in the first place. As this and other cases show, complacency is not an option for organizations today. 

To avoid a situation like Apple is facing, organizations should conduct proactive, monthly pay equity audits. To get started, download our white paper Designing a Successful Pay Equity Program for Your Organization.

If your organization needs assistance achieving its DEI goals, contact us to learn about our monthly DEI platform and consultative solution, PayParity. This all-in-one product offers ongoing auditing and monitoring tools to help your organization achieve DEI goals and minimize risk.