Inside Apple, your job classification can mean a lot. The difference between a “level 4” engineer and a “level 5,” for instance, could mean a difference of hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation. And those titles help determine how much Apple employees can make when they leave the company for another job. But there’s a hitch.
In widely used databases that companies refer to for verification of job information, Apple changes the job title for every employee, whether they’re a PhD in computer science or a product manager, to “associate,” the company confirms.
Apple’s approach is bizarre if not unique, experts in employment practices say, but until now has gone largely unnoticed by anybody but a handful of job applicants whose résumés conflict with official databases maintained by job verification services run by companies such as Equifax and LexisNexis.
The title “associate” is generally used to connote more junior roles. Entry-level retail workers, for instance, are often called associates. Law firms refer to recent law school hires in the same way, and in universities, associate professors are ranked below those with the title “professor.”
The practice recently came to light when Cher Scarlett, a former Apple software engineer who raised concerns about alleged discrimination and misconduct at the company, filed a complaint to the Securities and Exchange Commission, alleging that when Apple changed her job title to “associate,” it delayed the hiring process at a prospective employer by nearly a week, during which time the company rescinded the offer. Scarlett said the job verification service hired to vet her résumé was unable to resolve the discrepancy with Apple.
Apple spokesman Josh Rosenstock confirmed that, for years, Apple has changed the job titles of its former employees to “associate.” Rosenstock declined to say why Apple does this or precisely when the practice began.
“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,” he said.
Scarlett, a software engineer on Apple’s security team, last year helped found the #AppleToo movement, which encourages employees at the company to speak out about workplace misconduct. In mostly anonymous testimonials, hundreds of employees have shared stories of what the group calls “persistent patterns of racism, sexism, inequity, discrimination, intimidation, suppression, coercion, abuse, unfair punishment and unchecked privilege.” She left the company last year after she said she was intimidated and retaliated against.
On Sept. 1, Scarlett filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging Apple’s practices violate federal labor law. The case is being investigated. In October, Scarlett filed a whistleblower complaint with the SEC, accusing Apple of misleading investors when it issued a statement to shareholders asserting that it does not use concealment clauses in separation agreements or settlements with employees. Scarlett says Apple asked her to sign such a clause when she left the company.
Apple has declined to comment on her specific allegations or specific employee matters.
Some former employees, previously unaware of the title changes, criticized Apple for the practice. Janneke Parrish, another #AppleToo founder, who was fired by the company after criticizing it for alleged employment law violations, said that even if Apple changes the titles in the database for all its employees, it can have “devastating consequences” for some former employees where specific titles represent levels of technical expertise. (Parrish has filed an NLRB complaint against Apple; she said she was told she was fired for deleting apps and files from a company phone during a company investigation, but she thinks it’s because of her activism.)
“Doing this severely limits the ability for ex-Apple employees to verify past employment, especially if they left on bad terms. It essentially forces us to stay in Apple’s good graces for those references as verification,” she said.
Apple offers a phone number employers can call to verify titles of former Apple employees. A voice recording on that line directs callers to the web site for InVerify, an employment verification service provider owned by credit agency Equifax. When The Washington Post called InVerify’s customer support number, a customer service representative said Apple is the only company he knew of that changes job titles of employees when they leave. Apple also changes titles for employees who have taken a leave of absence, the person said.
The representative said he gets a few calls a month from people trying to get the accurate job titles of former Apple employees. If the caller can provide the employee’s full Social Security number, InVerify is able to look up the person’s old payroll information and verify the job title that way.
Equifax did not respond to a request for comment.
But even people who verify job titles for a living can be stumped by the byzantine system for verifying accurate job titles for former Apple employees. Emails between Scarlett and Sterling, an employment verification firm hired by her would-be employer, show that employees at Sterling were confused when her title came back as “associate” when they checked Equifax’s database, called the Work Number, in late January.
Unable to verify Scarlett’s title, a recruiter from the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, which had offered her a job, emailed her asking if she could provide any references at Apple who might be able to independently verify her title. “I hope you are having a great day! Could you help me with the job title discrepancy with Apple?” the recruiter wrote in a message reviewed by The Post. “Could you provide me with a couple of references from Apple? I’ll need to submit references from Apple confirming the job title.” Scarlett provided the name of a human resources employee she had dealt with in the past.
“Irrespective of the reasons why they are doing it, this is a very bad and possibly unlawful practice,” said Laurie Burgess, an employment law attorney who represents Parrish in her labor board case against Apple. “Seems to me that this action interferes with employees’ reasonable future economic interests.”
Cher Scarlett filed an NLRB charge against Apple on Sept. 1, not on Aug. 7. This article has been corrected.