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Harassment at Apple: A personal perspective Sowmya Shriraghavan Medium

Harassment at Apple: A personal perspective

I am a female engineer and a former Apple employee. I am usually a fairly private person and I try to steer clear of controversies. As an immigrant and woman, I have often felt like a lone barometer in gauging the importance of a lot of issues around gender, race and culture. But there are times when it feels like silence is wrong, and for me, this is one of those times.

Women (of every ethnicity) show up at work to be successful. Employers have an obligation to provide a safe and healthy work environment where women can do so. In the event of discrimination or harassment, employers also have an obligation to handle the situation with empathy and integrity. But, from what I have learned, the handling of such issues in the business world leaves a lot to be desired.

My situation

It is still difficult for me to explain my situation very well. One day, one of my supervisors jumped to my defense at a team event, in an awkward display of sexism. The gesture was unnecessary, so I was taken aback and chose to ignore what happened. In hindsight, I should have addressed the incident right then.

However, a group of other male coworkers who resented the attention I received started directing inappropriate and misogynistic remarks towards me. (This is the classic pushback that Tracy Chou talks about).

The group started insinuating in public that I was getting preferential treatment because of my cuteness factor. They also made remarks implying that I was using my gender as an advantage at work and soliciting attention from my supervisorI wasnt. My opinions were rejected and demeaned in meetings and on social media.

It took me a few weeks to realize that I was being willfully targeted, during which I tried to defend myself. The situation then escalated to anti-immigrant rhetoric, derogatory remarks about my cultural background and racial intimidation.

Im Indian, so they made comments about not liking to work with me or with the growing number of Indian tech workers in the company (of which I was oneI moved to the US for school and was at Apple on an H1-B visa). I also faced hostile remarks about Indian women being subservient and arranged marriages being forced on Indians for generations.

At a lunch with several other coworkers, one of these men commanded me to summon the waiter and pay the bill, as if I were inferior and not an equal. When I refused, he got more insistent and aggressive. Every other person at the table commented about this shocking and inappropriate behavior.

The intensity of continued intimidation and racial hostility was extremely alarmingI had never before encountered this kind of visceral hatred. The cumulative aggression of these incidents was so high that I felt uncomfortable and unsafe in my workplace.

I approached my management when the situation escalated, who directed me to HR. Instead of helping me, HR embarked on a defensive and confrontational script. I felt cornered, unsafe and unsure of what to do next.

It had already been a few months of coming to work in this kind of work environment. I was beyond distressed and stressed out. I almost quit my job at this point, but I forced myself to stay on for the next few months. It took the company this time to take some responsibility, conduct an investigation and stop the targeted abuse.

The management: A breach of responsibility

I was already feeling overwhelmed at facing such open hostility from multiple coworkers. Supervisor involvement only made things more uncomfortable.

I went to HR and management to get help with stopping the open hostility targeted at me.

However, my encounters with them were like a precursor to a courtroom battle with me on one side and everybody else on the other. So, just like in a courtroom, there was no empathy, I was intimidated and everything I said was in doubt or twisted to benefit the companys agenda of legal non-liability.

When I was initially hesitant about filing a formal harassment complaint, HR sent me emails recording the minutes of our meetings. The emails made it seem as though I had willfully declined the companys assistance, even though I had only requested that my manager talk to the offenders first, since HR and Business Conduct were so intimidating. This pattern of misrepresenting facts and proceedings to craft a company advantage continued for several weeks.

I have since learned that this system is rather standard across the industrycompanies wanting to protect their legal liability rather than trusting their employee or trying to help them. This approach is completely counterproductive and only intimidates you further.

The Issues

There are several issues to address with managing harassment, none of which were addressed by the system or the company.

  1. There was no access to company policy. The information I received was very minimal and only prompted by my own questioning.
  2. There was no meaningful process to handle harassment and no clear responsibilities for individuals or between departments. I had no idea who to approach for what problem. The communication between parties was also so fractured that it only added to the confusion.
  3. There seemed to be far too many conflicts of interest. My concerns were completely eclipsed by my chain of managements own fears about possible actions against them. This created situations where they were themselves conflicted about if and how to deal with the problem. Instead of addressing my concerns, they chose to ignore them.
  4. My challenge in this situation was, that by the time I even recognized that I was being harassed, it was too late to avoid the distressing consequences. I got no help or consideration with managing this.My management chain dismissed my distress as overreactions. HR distanced itself and refused to help me with anything. (Even with getting time off for anxiety, I was only sent one email with two links to employee assistance programs.)
  5. There were far too many decisions dependent on me. I seemed to be responsible for taking too many decisions about how to proceedbe it convincing the company to take responsibility, confronting the offenders or even getting time off. It is not reasonable to expect the victim to have the presence of mind to know how to tackle this problem. The company needs to know what the victims state of mind is likely to be (including apprehensions around reporting), and handle the situation accordingly.
  6. I had no meaningful organizational or cultural support. No one seemed to trust me or care about what was happening, and conversely, I didnt have anyone who I could trust. HR and my management chain was disbelieving to the point of questioning my account of what had elapsed.My HR representative also added to my distress. (When I told her that remarks about me soliciting attention from male supervisors were inappropriate and offensive, she instead asked me to justify why they were offensive. It is a non-starter when someone who is supposed to be supportive at best or neutral at worst refuses to even acknowledge how statements could be offensive to you.)
  7. Until the investigation was completed, even my honesty was at stake.I felt like had I not pushed through until the end of the investigation in spite of feeling unsafe, even bringing up these concerns would have detracted from my credibility.
  8. Even after the investigation was completed, HR had taken action and presumably issued warnings, some employees continued to be hostile. (Comments from one of the offenders continued through the very next meeting. Leadership and HR continued to be difficult to interact with. My HR representative was simply unfriendly after I gave feedback about her being unduly confrontational with me. After so many conflicts, I am certain to have burnt some bridges.)There was such limited understanding or remorse around this issue and so little motivation to look beyond the legal implications that there was no one else I could approach or trust to look at the situation any further.

No one at the company took responsibility for anything other than protecting the companys liability in case of a lawsuit. I felt like an adversary first and an inconvenience next, not an employee facing serious problems at her workplace.

The personalimpact

I had never encountered harassment before, so I didnt recognize it in time or know enough about it to protect myself better from its consequences.

Harassment is a severe experience, the strain of which can cause you to fall apart at a human level.

I began to have difficulty sleeping, concentrating and making decisions. I got physically ill from the continued stress (frequent migraines, constant throwing up due to anxiety). I have lost count of how many times I criedat work and outside. I had days of absenteeism and frequent panic attacksso much so that I almost had an accident on the highway when I had a panic attack on my drive home after a meeting regarding this issue.

My stress and anxiety symptoms only got more frequent and severe after the first couple of months. I started having major sleep disturbances, endocrine issues, and depressive symptoms (crying spells, anger outbursts, chronic fatigue, gastrointestinal problems). After a while, I was so physically and mentally worn out that it was impossible for me to complete a simple task like reading for ten minutes, without getting anxious or throwing up. Being productive or even interviewing for another job was out of the question. I eventually quit.

For many months now, my life and health have been in turmoil. I have yet to enjoy a good nights sleep. I have been dealing with recurrent episodes of anxiety and depression. In the wake of the emotional distress from this episode, I have gone from being a completely cheerful and even-tempered person, to being more withdrawn and difficult than I ever imagined possible.

The conflicts during and in the aftermath of this episode have also taken a toll on my relationships. For all this time, my family has had to bear the brunt of my unrest. They have literally had to nurse me back to healthI would have never survived without their care. Supporting me through this episode has impacted their well being toothe intense emotional strain has caused them to fall ill as well. This strife has shattered all of our lives like nothing else before.

This cannot possibly be an experience that is considered normal in the course of someones career in this industry.

Company responsibility: Takingaction

Apple is the most admired company in the world today todaynot only because of its products but also because of its progressive values. But unfortunately, the culture and mindset in some of its engineering organizations mirrors the larger discriminatory trend in the Valley.

To be fair to Apple, system and handling aside, the company admitted a mistake and took some action after completing its investigation (they admitted that the concerned people were resentful of Indians doing well in the company). I eventually received an apology and got time off to deal with my stress. The company has so far respected my privacy. But, the cumulative conflict and anxiety was so high for me towards the end that it was impossible for me to maintain my composure or remain on the premises any longer.

I always considered the US my second home, and treated my coworkers the same as I would my friends or family. So, the reactions of disbelief and indifference that followed this kind of ill-treatment cut deep. I did also personalize and internalize some of this hurt at first.

However, after I left Apple, I informed company leadership of the inadequacies I encountered during my experience at the company. While I never heard back in person, I do believe that it likely triggered some of the following actions by the company.

  1. Apples vocal stand on social justice issues in the business world over the recent months
  2. Women on stage at WWDC ever since
  3. Apples renewed focus on diversity within the company

I hope that at least some of these actions are sincere measures towards correcting the wrongs I encountered (in which case I am thankful and honored). I also hope that the company is now genuinely supportive of women taking a stand against discrimination and harassment (in which case I am glad that my plight had some impact).

But this resolution still seems incomplete. I was a productive employee at the company. While the company and its culture stood silently by, I have lost years of my life, career and happiness because of the racial and gender harassment I endured at work, its mishandling and the brutal aftermath.

Even now, I worry that others (especially immigrants or people of color) might continue to face harassment or discrimination while this culture or unfair business practices related to resolving such matters persist.

So, whether there is real change or not, I would still rather some of these systemic problems be addressed (at the company and in the industry) than be complicit in having them continue, with my silence regarding this matter.

Company Responsibility: Nextsteps

If my experience is anything to go by, harassment is one of the most brutal experiences women encounter in the workplace. The journey to even establishing company liability can be a very solitary and intensely punishing one (in some cases, even impossible).

Companies need to do far more than what they are doing right now to prevent women from eventually quitting. They need to cultivate cultures where such situations dont arise in the first place. And in case they do, companies need to manage them far more responsibly than they are doing right now.

  1. The first step to taking responsibility is admitting that there is a problem.
  2. Companies need to take responsibility for finding a comprehensive solution for discrimination and harassment as a whole, not just dealing with its legal ramifications.There seems to be little cultural understanding of the complexity and impact of harassment, or its management, in the business world. This lack of understanding seems to be accommodating business practices that are completely counterproductive.The present system considers harassment and its victim purely a liability to be dismissed, rather than trying to retain herthis approach is only setting women up to fail. It is disturbing to learn that this institutionalized denial is considered standard business practice. I am not naive enough to suggest that companies abandon legal concerns, but I think this issue is serious enough that it warrants at least an attempt to arrive at a reasonable middle ground.
  3. There needs to be a plan to manage and resolve such matters and support victims until they recover and can be productive again. The company also needs to handle this problem with the empathy it merits.Stanford has a portal, I dont know how many businesses do.The plan should at least address basic issues like policies, a management roadmap, safety concerns, change of environments, alternate supervisors in cases of a conflict of interest, getting assistance with time off etc.
  4. The company needs to support and empower women/people to take a stand in these situations. This includes reevaluating notions of employee loyalty and being willing to change company policies around these problems. This includes considering women in these situations as people, rather than as pawns in the greater agenda of protecting the companys legal liabilities.Women are being asked to choose between their conscience and their careers todaythis is not a fair choice.Companies cannot have it both ways. If they are punishing women for standing up for themselves or trying to better their situation, they are part of the problem and not part of the solution.
  5. Lastly, corrective actions for any violations have to be significant enough to be a deterrent to such behaviors in the future. There also needs to be some accountability for these actions.Instead, at least in my case, company actions seemed to be ineffectual in stopping some of the most egregious and hostile behaviors. Added to which, there seemed to be no accountability for these actions.
  6. Finally, companies in this industry need to be willing to face scrutiny regarding problems of discrimination and harassment in their cultures. Discrimination statistics (both actions and outcomes) need to be considered key indicators of progress while tracking diversity metrics, and should be published along with hiring, retention and promotion statistics.

The leadership question

I had a good journey at Apple prior to this episodeeven my management had been good to me prior to this episode. I worked with people who were smart and worked hard. I have learned more from them than I would have anywhere else in the world, and I truly admire and respect them for this. Some of them have also supported me through this as friends more than as co-workersI would not be here today without their guidance. However, an episode like this is damaging enough that it cancels out a lot of the good that came before it.

Harassment and discrimination are hardly new problems in this industry, but it is not easy to recognize or overcome them. Women put a lot at stake while taking a stand, not just their career trajectory (their privacy, personal safety and economic independence most of all). The difficulty of their situation is only compounded by a system and culture that fights them every step of the way.

Eventually, women can only do so much. Everyone else is also responsible for either supporting women (even other minorities) under these circumstances, or sidelining them. Realistically, businesses and leaders are always going to be more powerful. So, it is up to them to reevaluate current approaches to addressing harassment and discrimination within their cultures.

Business leaders are finally answerable for treating issues of prejudices, employee harassment and discrimination as marginal casualties in the way their businesses are operated, or as serious violations of human rights and dignity, that need to be prevented, handled and enforced accordingly. Their actions and approach regarding this matter are a reflection of their values as well as a legacy of their leadership.

The question now iswill this industry change and try to establish higher standards and better outcomes for this issue?

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Update: @4:30 AM PST, 5rd Jan 2017: This article was updated to remove all images ( Adding images was an experiment, but I concluded that they were distracting. Apologies to anyone who might have been inconvenienced by my trial. )

Update: @4:30 AM PST, 3rd Jan 2017: This article was updated with a new header image

Update: @8:40 AM PST, 18th Dec 2016: This article was updated to add that the company also admitted that the men involved resented Indians succeeding within the company.

Update: @6:30 AM PST, 16th Dec 2016: This article was updated to clarify that I was on an immigrant visa.

An earlier version of this post was published anonymously at Code Like a Girl Pen Name

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