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THINK DIFFERENT

Apple can’t just throw money at its talent retention problem

CEO Tim Cook speaks at an Apple event at their headquarters in Cupertino
Reuters/Stephen Lam
Keep employees from jumping ship.
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Apple is giving some employees 180,000 more reasons to stay.

Come January, the company is awarding scores of engineers, including those working on hardware like mixed-reality headsets and silicon design for its chips, restricted stock units (RSUs) of between $50,000 and $180,000, Bloomberg reports.

The surplus monetary incentive is “out of cycle” and “random and unusual,” according to Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman. These rewards are typically given during Apple’s October performance reviews.

It’s like an attempt to ward off poaching—especially by Meta (formerly Facebook), which has pinched more than a hundred Apple engineers in the last few months. This surprise payout could help Apple match the fat packages Meta has been doling out. The median employee at Facebook makes $240,000. In contrast, the median employee at Apple makes just over $55,000. (Granted Apple has tons of low-level retail workers that Facebook doesn’t, but still.)

Moreover, RSUs are enticing because they’re tied to the company’s performance. The amount, which vests over a four-year period, is set to grow alongside the nearly-$3-trillion-company’s market value. In 2021, Apple’s stock gained 36%. At just under $180 today, analysts predict Apple’s share price will surpass $200 over the next 12 months.

A heated poaching war in Silicon Valley

Apple isn’t only losing talent—it’s also stealing some. Ahead of launching its first new product in seven years—a mixed-reality headset—Apple hired Andrea Schubert, Meta’s communications and public relations head for augmented and virtual reality. It has also copped engineers from chip startup Nuvia.

Meanwhile, like Apple, Meta’s talent pipeline has been leaky—especially at the top. In the last year, several senior executives have left the firm.

Meta’s best bet to lure talent has been offering insanely high salaries. As Facebook and Instagram become notorious for spreading misinformation and worsening mental health, these payouts are being touted by some as a “brand tax” meant to encourage workers to join a widely criticized company.

Apple is applying the same formula but money alone won’t be enough to counter the gamut of reasons why employees keep quitting:

Apple’s discrimination problem

For one, the company’s culture seems fractured.

The #AppleToo movement in August unearthed more than 500 complaints of racism, gender discrimination, and other forms of marginalization at the company. The organizers of the movement said “the culture of secrecy creates an opaque, intimidating fortress,” adding that taking up issues with management are met with “isolation, degradation, and gaslighting.”

The next month, Apple drew ire for firing a whistleblower, Ashley Gjovik, who made allegations of “workplace safety issues, corporate corruption, and unlawful surveillance of employees,” she told Quartz—the US Labor Department is investigating her complaint of retaliation.

Apple Car’s lofty long-term dreams

Then, in some parts of the business, its ambitions seem muddled. For instance, its seven-year-old self-driving car endeavor called “Project Titan” has been marred by frequent strategy shifts and a lack of clarity.

A month ago, Apple lost its global battery chief, Soonho Ahn, to Volkswagen. In the last few months, key Apple Car engineers have departed for air taxi company Archer Aviation, Ford, and more. A promising Tesla veteran it had hired in 2018 was among the recent departees.

Apple’s inflexible flexible working policy

Furthermore, the work-from-home policy—or rather, lack thereof—has been a point of contention.

In September, Apple planned to bring all employees back to the office for at least three days a week. Employees with disabilities or other conditions had to sign documents and release medical records for exemptions—an uncomfortable process for some. This at a time when other tech companies like Twitter had already announced permanent work-from-home plans. 

Apple’s deadline to return to the office has been postponed, especially in light of omicron cases surging. But the firm hasn’t changed its mind about eventually coming back to physical spaces. Several employees have even quit over this hardline stance.

The Cupertino catch

Additionally, the company has been losing talent due to the extraordinary cost of living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Many engineers couldn’t afford college tuition for kids, or create long-term savings.

The sky-high cost has become such a disincentive that the company is looking beyond Cupertino for more talent at cheaper rates. Johny Srouji, Apple’s head of custom silicon, and Eddy Cue, Apple’s online services chief, have pushed to open up offices in other US states and even parts of Asia.

This piece has been updated with the US Labor Department’s investigation into Apple firing a whistleblower.

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