Ruthlessly enforcing a code of silence

Would your employer fire you if you said anything about them in a post on Facebook? Or in a public tweet? Or in a blog post?

Much of course depends on what you might say, but one UK Apple employee with surname Crisp suffered the ultimate consequence after writing a comment on Facebook critical of his employer, as People Management reports.

[…] Crisp, who worked in an Apple Store, posted derogatory statements on Facebook about Apple and its products. The posts were made on a “private” Facebook page and outside of working hours. One of his colleagues, who happened to be a Facebook “friend”, saw the comments, printed the posts and passed them to the store manager. Crisp was subsequently dismissed for gross misconduct.

The employment tribunal rejected Crisp’s claim for unfair dismissal. Key to the tribunal’s decision was the fact that Apple had a clear social media policy in place and had made it absolutely plain throughout the induction process that commentary on Apple products, or critical remarks about the brand, were strictly prohibited. Interestingly the tribunal took into account that such comments would be particularly damaging for Apple as image is so central to its success.

In fact, the story has received widespread media coverage, social and mainstream.

Two elements to this story stand out to me:

  1. Apple has a clear social media policy in place, says People Management’s report – it would be great to see it although I doubt it’s Apple’s style to publicly share it – and “had made it absolutely plain throughout the induction process that commentary on Apple products, or critical remarks about the brand, were strictly prohibited.”
  2. The employment tribunal cited that fact as central to its decision to reject a claim for unfair dismissal.

Equally interesting is use of the word “commentary.” It doesn’t say “negative commentary” or “critical commentary,” just “commentary.” So I presume that is literal: any commentary about Apple or its products is not allowed. I assume the social media policy sets out the consequences if an employee doesn’t abide by the policy which, I assume again, can mean dismissal as happened to employee Crisp.

Whatever you may think of any company that has such a forbidding policy in place, if it is in place, and explained and communicated to all employees, and an employee then goes and does something plainly against the policy, well, there are consequences. Should that surprise anyone?

In Apple’s case, it’s no secret that the company rigidly enforces control over who can say what publicly, certainly at Apple itself and clearly also in its retail store operations. This case reminds me of a report a few years ago that I wrote about quoting a feature about Steve Jobs and Apple written by Times journalist Bryan Appleyard, which included this text:

[…] secrecy is one of Apple’s signature products. A cult of corporate omerta – the mafia code of silence – is ruthlessly enforced, with employees sacked for leaks and careless talk. Executives feed deliberate misinformation into one part of the company so that any leak can be traced back to its source. Workers on sensitive projects have to pass through many layers of security. Once at their desks or benches, they are monitored by cameras and they must cover up devices with black cloaks and turn on red warning lights when they are uncovered.

It sounds extreme, doesn’t it? Yet wholly believable if you are an observer of Apple. Indeed, I’m reading Steve Jobs’ biography and such a story rings very true indeed as it is illustrative of Jobs’ control freakery and the iron grip over communication he wielded at the company and of which there’s no indication of any change since Jobs’ death last month.

What a difference in culture, style and more between Apple and Google – the former practicing corporate omerta, the latter encouraging criticism and constructive dissent by its employees.

Who’s to say which is right and which is wrong? Yet I know which kind of company I’d prefer to work for.

[Later] I posted this story on Google+. There are some insightful and interesting comments there.

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Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. Sharon (Joining Dots)

    I’m not a fan of the absolute silence approach and agree, I know which environment I’d prefer to work in. But I think it’s right if it refers to future unreleased products. Microsoft has been firing people for talking about Windows 8 through unofficial channels. See http://www.winrumors.com/two-microsoft-employees-allegedly-fired-over-recent-windows-8-leaks/ for example, at least one other has been fired since. I guess it’s a lot easier to enforce either absolute silence or anything goes versus a mix-and-match approach

    • Neville Hobson

      Thanks Sharon. If you have a workplace policy that says you can’t do such and such, and you then go ahead and do, it, well, expect the unpleasant consequences. And it’s not just social media involved either as your Microsoft example suggest.

  2. Robert Scoble

    Yes, Apple does have this policy in place and has for a long time. You also are not allowed to speak to the press, etc.

    This policy works for Apple. It makes a brand where the product and the execs speak for the brand, not anyone else. It doesn’t work for many other companies, though.

    • Neville Hobson

      It’s interesting, Robert, that it does work for Apple if you measure it against financial performance, ie, Apple do not encourage social media interactions by any employee, they’re not transparent, actively prohibit in openness and social engagement, etc, yet do very well indeed on the stock market. Kind of goes against much of the received wisdom about being social and the business benefits that come.

      Yet I think they’re missing out hugely on simple social interactions between people and the potential benefits that could have for them in wide areas of trust, reputation, brand loyalty, even crises.

      Wonder what might change under new CEO Tim Cook. Huge task in reshaping culture, etc.

  3. Jonathan

    Great post. It’s interesting to me because I write technical blog posts sometimes – and while I’m not allowed to comment on the company, or project I am working on, there is nothing to stop me talking about the wider subject of what I am doing (solving some generic problem, for instance).

    I know who I would rather work for between Apple and Google too :)

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