Above: a portrait of the Silicon Slinger in Happier Times – ca. February, 2017
Long story short: on January 20, 2022, I was “terminated” from my job as a part-time product specialist for Apple, Inc. – after working for more than five years at their retail outlet in the Green Hills Mall in Nashville, TN.
As the story that follows details, I was fired for the grievous, cardinal sin of… asking a customer for her phone number.
And now… the rest of the story:
Two weeks before Christmas a woman named – well, for the purposes of this telling we’re just gonna call her “TWIQ” – The Woman in Question” – came into the store with questions about upgrading her iPhone. I introduced myself and she told me her name. As I always do (did) in these situations, I looked at her settings to see if she had what she would need to expedite the upgrade and transfer her data, etc. Once I had answered all her questions, I gave her my personalized Apple business card, adding that we don’t work on commission but I’d be happy to help her if I was there when she came back.
The following week, a few days before Christmas, TWIQ returned, brandishing that business card I’d given her and asking for me. A co-worker saw me elsewhere in the store and asked me to take over. I greeted TWIQ by name and she seemed pleased, or at least surprised, that I had remembered her name.
We proceeded to transact and begin the setup of her new iPhone – a process that typically includes 30-45 minutes of just standing around while data flies through the digital ether.
As the progress bars on her new phone slowly expanded, we got to chatting. Eventually I learned that TWIQ was relatively new to Nashville. I asked her how she liked it here, and she said that she hasn’t taken much of a shine to it. She’s been here over a year, but hasn’t been able to get out much or meet people – because #Covid.
I asked her “would you like to get coffee some day?”
She said “yes.”
With that I gave her another business card. This time I wrote my phone number on it.
Then I had a second thought and asked if I could have her number.
She said “yes.”
I asked her to put her number in my phone (that’s what the kids do these days!) – and she did.
A few days before Christmas I sent her a one-word text message.
A couple of days after Christmas, I sent another short text message.
Again, no answer.
End of story.
Or so I thought…
… Until about 2PM on Wednesday, January 12.
While on the floor and working with a customer, a text message showed up on my personal iPhone from The Store Leader (hereinafter “TSL”) inviting me to a meeting in her private office (officially “the people room” but aka “the panic room” or for this still 8-year-old, “the principal’s office”).
Once behind closed doors, TSL informed me that she had been on the phone with ‘Employee Relations’ (Apple’s version of “Human Resources”) about a ‘customer interaction’ that they had ‘concerns’ about.
TSL handed me a post-it note with a phone number that I was instructed to call.
I called the number and spent about 20 minutes being interrogated by somebody from ER who’s first name was “David” – so we’ll just call him “ERDave”. ERDave asked me if I recalled the situation described above. I did and told him essentially everything I outlined above.
Here I should assert that I am well aware of Apple’s policies regarding the inappropriate use of confidential customer information. In my five years with the company I’ve been through several trainings that emphasize that the purloining of information gleaned within the course of a customer interaction without the customer’s knowledge or consent is a hanging offense. If I had, for example, memorized TWIQ’S email address after entering it to send her a receipt, and then contacted her via that purloined email, I can see where that would be a clear ‘policy violation.’
But that was not what happened here.
As near as I can tell (of course, I no longer have access to any internal Apple documents, so it’s impossible to find any exact wording) – the policy is pretty ambiguous when it comes to the voluntary exchange of personal info in what appeared to be congenial personal interaction.
What I learned from ERDave is that – unbeknownst to me – TWIQ was apparently so rattled or alarmed by the attention that she actually went to one of the other stores in the area and reported my conduct to one of the managers there, who then reported it to ER and set this whole travesty in motion.
Near the end of the interrogation, I asked ERDave just how much jeopardy I was in. All he said was I would hear back “by the end of this week or beginning of next…”
After the call with ERDave, TSL returned to the panic room and asked if I was upset (which I was) and offered to let me take the rest of the day off. I declined the offer, telling her, “no, I’d just like to go back out there and do my job.” Which I did that day and the next.
Starting that Friday, I had five days when I was not on the schedule. I returned to work on Tuesday January 19 and worked my full shift, and returned again on Wednesday January 20, still not having heard anything about the disposition of ‘my case.’
At about 2PM on Wednesday the 20th, I was called back in to the panic room and informed that I was terminated, effectively immediately. When asked why, TSL aid only “policy violation…” – alluding to the aforementioned policies regarding customer data. That the customer freely and willingly provided that information – and had ample opportunity not to do so – was not a consideration. Case closed.
I talked with TSL for about 15 minutes. Knowing it was pointless, I nevertheless attempted to make the case that the policy is ambiguous when it comes to contact info willingly offered for personal reasons. She brushed me off by saying that the training couldn’t possibly include “a scenario that says if you ask a customer to go for coffee and she says yes, then you can ask her for her number…”
TSL offered some nice bromides about “the value that you’ve added over the last several years..” and that this was “an unfortunate outcome to a decision that was made…” inferring, I guess, that the decision was made elsewhere.
“Anything else? I asked.
She reiterated what to expect by way of communication in the days ahead.
“OK,” I said. “Goodbye.”
Exeunt stage right.
Thus ends five years of reliable, dedicated and productive service. One-strike (and a ‘foul tip’ at that..), and you’re out. Don’t let the door hit you…
I resisted the temptation to go through the door from the back-stage area into the storefront, loudly announce “Ladies and Gentlemen, Paul Schatzkin!!” – and clap myself out*.
– – – –
That’s my side of the story. Here’s TWIQ’s side of the story:
Oh, wait. I don’t have that information.
I have no idea what TWIQ said to ER, or any way of knowing if perhaps I’ve mis-remembered anything in the account shared here. I certainly have no idea what her actual experience of the encounter was, what part of it she found offensive or threatening – least of all, why she didn’t just say “no” when I asked for her number (though at that point I may have already been guilty-as-charged). They don’t share that side of the investigation – only that there was sufficient evidence in the Court of Corporate Jurisprudence – where unseen forces adjudicate in the dark, render their final verdict and deliver the absolute sentence – that I have been found guilty of unforgivably “inappropriate workplace behavior.”
Charged, tried, convicted… and hung.
That’s what passes for ‘due process’ in Monolithic Corporate America, where the Company is plaintiff, prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner.
Herewith, the first paragraph of my termination notice:
This termination letter was accompanied by an interesting offer: After cutting off my health insurance as of the moment of termination – and because, you know, #Covid – the company has generously (insert snark emoji here) offered to pay for two months of (costly) COBRA benefits – but only if I sign a document that would…
…release…Apple…from all claims, judgments…damages…which I may now have, or which I ever had arising from … my employment relationship or the termination of my employment with Apple. This release includes, but is not limited to, (i) all “wrongful discharge” claims…
Well, maybe not. Since I’m already older than dirt, I’ll take my chances with Medicare.
And see what a good labor lawyer has to say about “wrongful discharge.”**
*There is a lot of clapping at Apple. When I arrived for my first day of training on August 31, 2016, there were about 30 people in the room who all started clapping when the new trainees were ushered in. That’s called a ‘clap in.’ When an employee in good standing leaves the company, they get ‘clapped out’ through a gauntlet of co-workers applauding and hugging as they leave. Alas, I shall not be getting ‘clapped out’. I thought for a moment of staging my own ‘clap out’ but decided it better to not let these bastards have the satisfaction of me making a scene upon my departure. Besides, there really weren’t enough people in the store at the time to make it worthwhile.
** Update January 27: I have now spoken with two different attorneys about this situation, and I am advised that there really is no case here for ‘wrongful termination.’
In Tennessee (as in most states) the law is “employment at will” – meaning at the employer’s will. The only contestable exceptions to that fall under Civil Rights and Title VII considerations, i.e. if a case can be made that the employer has discriminated against a ‘protected class.’ I may be old as dirt, but it would be nigh impossible (and prohibitively costly) to prove that I was fired in an exercise of age discrimination.
As one attorney told me, apart from “membership in one of those protected classes,” there is not a lot of protection. Employers can make rules, they can enforce the rules, or not enforce the rules, as long as the enforcement or lack of enforcement is not conducted in a discriminatory manner… just as you can quit at any time, they can fire you at any time.”
So y’all behave now, and remember that any Lord can kick your peasant ass just because you looked at a rule the wrong way.
Update May 30, 2022: And now, the rest of the story…