Apple shareholders approved a proposal for a civil rights audit Friday against the company's wishes, a rarity in the business world. Shareholders supporting the proposal said that given public employee unrest, privacy, and safety concerns, an audit was necessary to hold the company to its stated pay equity and diversity goals.
Though Apple is not required to follow the suggestions of the proposal, shareholders will likely hold the company to account.
SOC Investment Group, the Service Employees International Union and Trillium Asset Management, which supported the proposal, wrote in a joint statement that recent news reports of civil rights issues put Apple’s “reputation as an inclusive and equitable changemaker” at risk. “While Apple has taken steps to address certain imbalances, what has become increasingly apparent is that Apple’s public image is not aligned with the company’s actions,” the investor group wrote.
It’s rare for shareholders to vote against management's recommendations. One other notable example occurred last October, when Microsoft shareholders pushed the company to evaluate the human rights impacts of its government contracts, including those with ICE.
That vote was organized by the group Open Mic, which focuses on coordinating activist shareholders at large tech companies; Open Mic was not involved in the Apple vote.
Shareholders supporting the proposal pointed out, citing news reports, that only 12% of the company’s technical workforce is Black or Hispanic, and that Apple has no Hispanic executives and only one Black executive. They also noted that the company has blocked three employee-organized surveys meant to evaluate pay equity, and that one engineering manager had been placed on indefinite leave after accusing the company of sexism and harassment.
But their complaints go beyond the company’s treatment of workers — they are also concerned with potential harms to users. The company’s new policy on child sexual abuse material could be misused by law enforcement, the proposal said, and targeted advertising could have racist and sexist impacts
In a statement in opposition to the proposal, Apple said that its human rights, inclusion and diversity, and privacy policies, in addition to governance and board oversight, already addressed many of the shareholders' concerns. “Apple is committed to respecting human rights, including civil rights, and to ensuring everyone is treated with dignity and respect,” it wrote in a proxy filing.