Entrepreneurs

Tim Cook Isn’t Wrong: Leakers Don’t Belong At Apple


Last month, Zoe Schiffer of The Verge reported on a leaked memo from Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, which had some harsh words to say about–of all things–people who leak memos. Cook was frustrated about a string of internal communications being made public by employees who have concerns about everything from pay equity to the company’s remote work policies. Even a recent all-hands meeting was leaked in near-real-time. 

Cook didn’t confine his ire to leaked memos, however. He also isn’t happy that many of the company’s most recent product announcements leaked in advance. From Cook’s memo, which The Verge published in full:

I’m writing today because I’ve heard from so many of you were were incredibly frustrated to see the contents of the meeting leak to reporters. This comes after a product launch in which most of the details of our announcements were also leaked to the press.

I want to reassure you that we are doing everything in our power to identify those who leaked. As you know, we do not tolerate disclosures of confidential information, whether it’s product IP or the details of a confidential meeting. We know that the leakers constitute a small number of people. We also know that people who leak confidential information do not belong here.

While it’s been a few weeks since The Verge published its article, a thought kept coming back to me–especially as I read a number of opinions on Cook’s memo. He isn’t wrong: Leakers don’t belong at Apple.

Look, I say that as someone who benefits both personally and professionally when people on the inside share information about the company they work for. But, two things can be true at once. Journalists can publish information they receive when it’s newsworthy and relevant, and companies are right to fire the people who leak that information. 

As controversial as that sounds, I think it’s really kind of simple.

First, however, I think there’s a useful distinction to be made between the kind of leak we’ve seen from Frances Haugen–the former product manager at Facebook who shared thousands of documents with The Wall Street Journal, the Securities Exchange Commission, and Congress–and people who leak the design of the latest iPhone.

Whistleblowers–the kind who reveal corruption, fraud, or other malfeasance within a company, aren’t the same as someone who decides that it’s their privilege to disclose confidential internal information to a reporter or on social media.

Social media has almost eliminated the barrier to mass communication. That’s great in so many ways. For example, it allows creators to build and connect with an audience. It makes it easier for companies to reach customers. It also means that whistleblowers are able to leverage social media to elevate issues that had previously gone unnoticed outside of companies. 

Let’s focus, for a minute, on product leaks and other internal communications. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for a leader to expect that the things they say to his or her team to remain within the team.

That doesn’t mean that Apple should be free from scrutiny. On the contrary, the company should absolutely be held accountable for its decisions. To the extent that it is making decisions that go against its values, it’s completely reasonable that employees will want to make their voices heard.

If an employee finds that they no longer support the mission, purpose, or operations of a company they work for, they should leave. I get that sometimes employees believe the only option they have to force change when management is no longer listening to their concerns is to make those concerns public. That decision has consequences, one of which is that you may no longer have a job.

The same is true if you decide that it would be fun to leak confidential product information to a YouTuber or reporter. Employees aren’t entitled to a job at Apple any more than you or I are entitled to one. It’s reasonable for Apple’s executives and managers to expect that they can trust their employees with sensitive internal conversations without them becoming public. 

Anyone who works for a company and is actively seeking to undermine that company by leaking confidential information about upcoming products should absolutely be fired. This isn’t a gray area. There’s no nuanced reason someone might be leaking information about upcoming products that falls under some kind of moral obligation to make the public aware of the shape of the next Apple Watch.

These individuals are seeking their own momentary personal gain at the expense of the company they were hired to work for. Apple, or any other company, for that matter, is under no obligation to continue to pay any employee that is actively working against it. 

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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