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Why would Apple demote its former employees' titles to 'associate'?

Many businesses use centralized employment databases to validate job information, but Apple's apparently unique policy of changing titles can thwart job prospects and stall careers.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor
James Martin/CNET

Apple regularly downgrades the job titles of its former employees in the databases that companies access to verify employment background, according to a recent Washington Post report. Such a practice could make it harder for former employees to find future work or at least be credited with the work they did in higher-ranking positions.

To understand what Apple is reportedly doing, it's important to understand how things are done.

Employment history master databases

You're undoubtedly familiar with credit reporting agencies. When you apply for a loan, money lenders outsource some of the verification and qualification work to the big three agencies (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion). Credit agencies provide a central repository of information and -- to lenders -- a source of "truth" about your financial background.

Credit reports can make or break your ability to buy a car, get a mortgage, or rent an apartment. Unfortunately, those reports often have incorrect information. A recent CNBC report revealed that a full third of Americans have incorrect items on their credit reports -- substantially limiting their access to both money and lifestyle options.

Verifying employment backgrounds is another task that requires time-consuming and laborious investigation and is often automated by accessing comprehensive databases. Many medium-sized to large organizations use centralized employment history databases to validate job information.

For example, a service called The Work Number boasts, "Data provided directly from over two million employers. The Work Number database offers credentialed verifiers with permissible purpose access to income and employment data for more than 136 million records."

Another service, InVerify, provides "Employment and income verification services." Their pitch to HR departments is simple:

Free up valuable time by leaving verifications to our team of experts. InVerify provides secure, fast, and accurate access to the latest income and employment verification information 24 hours a day 7 days per week.

If these services seem an awful lot like those performed by credit agencies, that's because they are. Both The Work Number and InVerify are services offered by credit reporting giant Equifax. We covered Equifax extensively a few years ago when it suffered cybersecurity breaches.

Equifax is only one of many players providing these employment verification services. There are hundreds of companies hawking access to their databases of company-provided information.

So here's what happens. Let's say you're a software engineer and you apply for a job. Your official title might be something like "Software Engineer II," which is what you put on your resume.

In any case, when you apply for a job -- now, more often than not, by filling out a web form -- that form is processed by a variety of automated systems, including the aforementioned employment verification services.

If the job history you claimed on the form or on your resume passes verification, it moves on in the process. But if it doesn't pass verification, a few things might happen. First, and the most likely, is that your application is filed in the nearest virtual circular file as if it had never existed. If you're very lucky, you might hear back that your application couldn't be verified, giving you the chance to work the problem. And if you're very, very lucky and a hiring manager has seen your application data or verification happen after the interview process, that hiring manager might try contacting your former employer to resolve the discrepancy.

But here's the thing. If you put down "Senior Software Engineer" or "Senior Data Center IT Support Technician" or "Solution Architect, Manufacturing Service Line" or "Territory Channel Manager," or any of the thousands of job titles people have spent years working hard to earn, and the database contradicts that and says your title was merely "Associate" (an entry-level title usually used for low-skill, low-experience, junior-level jobs), your application is likely to be red-flagged, you're unlikely to get the job, and you're also likely to be considered a liar -- or at least someone not worth further engagement.

This brings us to Apple

According to The Washington Post report, "In widely used databases that companies refer to for verification of job information, Apple changes the job title for every employee, whether they're a PhD in computer science or a product manager, to associate".

If, as WashPo asserts, Apple conducts this practice, it could make it harder for former employees to find future work or at least be credited with the work they did in their higher-ranking positions.

Reed Albergotti, author of The Washington Post article, reports he confirmed this behavior with Josh Rosenstock, who the WashPo story describes as a "corporate spokesman." Rosenstock's actual job title is a bit opaque. His LinkedIn bio lists his role simply as "Apple PR." However, Rosenstock isn't just a low-level PR associate. According to a report in PRWeek, he's a "heavyweight,"  formerly Rolls-Royce's director of external communications, who joined "Apple as director of corporate comms for Europe, Middle East, India and Africa (EMEIA) region in a newly created role" in 2013.

The Apple associate issue came to light because a former Apple engineer named Cher Scarlett filed a complaint with the SEC when Apple changed her title to associate when she left the company. Scarlett lists her title on LinkedIn as Principal Software Engineer.

According to the Post's report, the discrepancy "delayed the hiring process at a prospective employer by nearly a week, during which time the company rescinded the offer. Scarlett said the job verification service hired to vet her résumé was unable to resolve the discrepancy with Apple."

How common is this practice?

According to The Washington Post report:

When The Washington Post called InVerify's customer support number, a customer service representative said Apple is the only company he knew of that changes job titles of employees when they leave. Apple also changes titles for employees who have taken a leave of absence, the person said.

According to the WashPo report, InVerify's rep -- not a PR person, but an agent who answered the employment verification phone line -- said he gets a "few calls a month" from employers trying to verify Apple employment of a candidate. The InVerify rep said that if they have a social security number, they can sometimes look up old payroll records and derive the actual Apple title that way.

Also: How to tweak YouTube so it only recommends videos you want to watch

But that's not the case with all employment verification services, particularly ones that don't have access to Equifax's enormous database of personal and credit information.

Scarlett's prospective employer used Sterling, a verification company that says it does 89 million background checks annually and touts 47,000 corporate clients, including LEGO, Siemens, Crocs, Kimberly-Clark, HunterDouglas, and NetApp as clients. The company, which also does employment verification for Amnesty International, apparently couldn't verify Scarlett's title, resulting in her not getting the job she had been offered.

Why does Apple do this?

When asked by WashPo, Rosenstock verified the practice but didn't provide any insight into Apple's reasoning.

The Washington Post article implied it was possibly retribution for Scarlett's actions while at the company. The report states that Scarlett helped found the #AppleToo movement, whose website claims:

The truth is that for many Apple workers -- a reality faced disproportionately by our Black, Indigenous, and other colleagues from minoritized racial, gender, and historically marginalized groups of people -- the culture of secrecy creates an opaque, intimidating fortress. When we press for accountability and redress to the persistent injustices we witness or experience in our workplace, we are faced with a pattern of isolation, degradation, and gaslighting.

There have been reports that Apple has been terminating the founders of AppleToo. The Verge reports on the termination of Janneke Parrish (former Apple Maps Program Manager) and Ashley Gjøvik (former Apple Senior Engineering Program Manager, Product Integrity).

The Washington Post article I've been referencing says that Scarlett "left the company last year after she said she was intimidated and retaliated against." Scarlett was a visible source of negative news for the company, having appeared in WashPo previously, as the spotlight of an article entitled, "She pulled herself from addiction by learning to code. Now she's leading a worker uprising at Apple."

But Apple hasn't just selectively changed the titles of trouble-making former employees. The practice of changing titles to associate is done across the board. So why?

ZDNet sent requests to Apple's media team, as well as directly to Rosenstock, the Apple executive Albergotti quoted as confirming Apple's practice. It's been 48 hours and we have not yet received a reply.

In our queries to Apple, we were hoping to get Apple's perspective on the matter. We asked them these questions: 

1. Can you confirm that Apple does, indeed, update employment databases with the title of associate for former employees and those on leave of absence, as The Washington Post asserted?

2. Does Apple limit this practice to any specific groups or ranks of employees, or is this an activity practiced across the board?

3. What is the reason for this practice? This is probably the big question, because (at least on the surface) it seems a pretty punitive practice against former employees. Is there a benefit to Apple and/or employees or any reason why this practice is carried out?

4. Is there anything else you'd like to say with regard to this matter? Right now, it opens up some big questions about the challenges former employees have getting work and the possibility that this practice is retributional in nature. We would like to give Apple the chance to clarify and disabuse readers of that impression.

If Apple does get back to us on this in the future, we'll update this article with their response.

What do you think? Why does Apple practice this policy? If you're a current or former Apple employee, what do you know about this policy? If you're a former Apple employee, have you experienced difficulty in getting a new job because of this policy? Let us know in the comments below.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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