Apple shareholders approved a proposal for a civil rights audit on Friday against the wishes of the company, a rarity in the business world. Shareholders supporting the proposal said that given public employee unrest, privacy and security concerns, an audit was needed to hold the company to its stated pay equity and diversity goals.
While Apple isn’t bound to follow the proposal’s suggestions, 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 reporting on civil rights issues jeopardizes Apple’s “reputation as an inclusive and equitable agent of change.” “While Apple has taken steps to address some imbalances, what has become increasingly clear is that Apple’s public image is not aligned with the company’s actions,” wrote the group of investors.
Shareholders rarely vote against management recommendations. Another notable example occurred last October, when Microsoft shareholders pushed the company to assess the human rights impacts of its government contracts, including those with ICE.
This vote was organized by the Open Mic group, which focuses on coordinating activist shareholders of big tech companies; Open Mic was not involved in Apple’s vote.
Shareholders supporting the proposal underline, 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 blocked three employee-organized surveys intended to assess pay equity and that an engineering manager was placed on indefinite leave after accusing the company of sexism and harassment.
But their complaints go beyond the company’s treatment of workers – they also worry about potential harm to users. The company’s new policy on child sexual abuse material could be misused by law enforcement, according to the proposal, and targeted advertising could have racist and sexist effects.
In a statement opposing the proposal, Apple said its human rights, inclusion and diversity and privacy policies, in addition to board governance and oversight, already meet many shareholder concerns. “Apple is committed to respecting human rights, including civil rights, and to ensuring that everyone is treated with dignity and respect,” he wrote in a power of attorney filing.