Recently Apple CEO Tim Cook asked his employees, in a video message, to review Apple's 'Business Conduct Policy'. This document describes how employees should conduct themselves in and outside the company while representing Apple. A new version of the policy became available to employees in iBooks format and a video from CEO Tim Cook discussing the policy was aired.
For myself, I've always found Apple very straight to deal with. Everyone's clear they can't and won't tell you anything, won't comment on rumours, and they concentrate on what is available and what it can do. Forthcoming within the very strong bounds of what they're allowed to say - but at least they're clear about it. Off the record, it's been remarked that Apple's secrecy is so strong, they know anything extra to tell me anyway - and I mostly believe it.
When Tim Cook released the email and video to employees a couple of weeks back, commentators wondered if anything in particular had prompted the communications ... without coming to any obvious conclusions. There have been information leaks, of course - the iPhone 5s and 5c should have been surprises, at least as to what they exactly entailed, but many of the details, it turned out, had emerged.
But the policy doesn't mention leaks and information specifically: it explains how Apple employees are expected to conduct themselves with customers, business partners, government agencies, and fellow employees, and also covers legal principles like antitrust and anti-corruption laws that all employees are expected to follow.
Cook himself, in his video entreaty, mentions ethics in particular, emphasising the concept for conditions inside Apple: "As Dr Martin Luther King once said, the time is always right to do what's right. At Apple, we do the right thing. Even when it's not easy. If you see something that doesn't meet our standards, speak up. Whether it's a quality issue or a business practice, if it affects Apple's integrity, we need to know about it." This is eminently laudable, especially to me - I have experienced company-wide deceit in several firms I have worked for here in New Zealand, up till 2007, and speaking out was decidedly discouraged.
Apple's Business Conduct Policy also covers things that most businesses do, or should, concern themselves with: conflicts of interest including personal investments; workplace relationships; outside employment and inventions; rules regarding harassment and discrimination; insider trading and substance abuse. It also includes Apple's policies for employees related to public speaking, press inquiries, publishing articles and endorsements.
With more of an external focus, on December 10th, Apple has joined with AOL, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo in an open letter calling for US government surveillance reform. The letter was addressed to President Barack Obama and the US Congress and is a response to the NSA's PRISM surveillance program that came to light earlier this year. Revelations about that program revealed the government had back doors into several of the technology companies' servers - all those technology companies denied giving the US government access.
A website has also been created by most of the technology companies that authored the letter, called Reform Government Surveillance. On that website, the technology companies published a set of five principles they believe governments should adhere to in regards to the collection and processing of citizens' data.
The page also has quotes from Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, and from the top people of AOL, Google, Microsoft's General Counsel and Executive Vice president Brad Smith, Dick Costolo of Twitter and LinkedIn's General Counsel - no one from Apple, but Apple's not mentioned on this page.
Cynicism aside (Facebook and Google's business is primarily about information gathering, after all), it will be interesting how the government will react.
In 2012, by the way, Apple became the first electronics company to be admitted to the Fair Labor Association (FLA). Admittedly this was after bad press about terrible conditions at Apple's supplier manufacturers. It did seem to pass by most people's attention that Foxconn et al also made components for many other tech companies aside from Apple, but Apple got the Big Bad Boy rep partly, I suppose, as it had had so much good press up till then. Everyone loves a good fall - especially journalists. The bad press for Apple did at least draw attention to conditions in Asian factories that were crying out for reform. Actually, some were so bad, they were crying out for even the barest hint of humanity.
Steve Jobs wasn't an overly humane character, according to some accounts and from reading between the lines. Tim Cook is a different kettle of fish. But if you look at the supply chain and the conditions within it, as Forbes noted last year, it was actually Tim Cook who built that supply chain - that's where his expertise lies. "The conditions that existed at Foxconn and other contractors in 2004, in 2011, were just as much Tim Cook's responsibility as they are now. For he was, as far as Apple is concerned, the creator of that entire system anyway."
This is a fairly jaded article which ascribes the reaction to Marxist economics. There's truth in that angle (labour oversupply leads to worker abuse, shortages promote better conditions and China has been seeing labour constraint over the last three years so the market requires a change to attract workers). But Apple is more likely to respond to bad press, since it did so when Greenpeace hammered Apple, sometimes unfairly, for ecologically bad practice. This led to a reform of manufacturing and design that made all products more recyclable and much less toxic to boot.
And Tim Cook, to his credit, has instigated various benevolent schemes like matching Apple employee donations to nonprofits up to $10,000 annually), and Apple donated US$50 million to Stanford University hospitals, with $25 million each going to a new main hospital building and a new children's hospital. Even Steve Jobs supported Product(RED) which is aimed at AIDS education and research - Apple has been responsible for over US$50 million towards that effort since it started to take part in 2006. Under this scheme, various products, like some iPods and many cases, are the certified RED colour and a portion of the cost goes to the charity, and Jobs' encouragement and endorsement was invaluable in the scheme's success.
All in all, Apple's products are more recyclable and less toxic, Apple is being a better citizen and conditions in the supply chain have improved. They can improve further, but at least they're being monitored.
Of course, the market reality of all this is that Chinese manufacturing is becoming more expensive (wages have risen) to the point that Apple can make a financial case for assembling the new Mac Pro in Texas, as it will be.