"The saying goes: Don't fuck with the person that serves your food," a former Apple Genius tells me over IM. "Don't fuck with the person who repairs your computer." He—we'll call him Ronald—spent six years as a member of Apple's Genius squad in a busy Southwestern store. It was a model store: shiny as the best of them, teeming, making money. But in back rooms and in plain sight, the employees ran wild: giving away computers, stealing phones, drunkenly destroying customer property. Ronald saw (and did) it all.
You might think twice before your next visit to the bar.
Ronald is a skittish sort of guy, prone to hours of dishing about Apple over the phone and IM with obvious contempt, before vanishing into the thin trenches of the online netherworld. At one point we went almost an entire year without speaking, before he reemerged to link me up with another Genius we'll call Jake: a sturdy nine-to-five type whose aversion to taking part in this story stemmed only with his busy schedule.
Ronald, on the other hand, was terrified of Apple. Terrified of what the white and aluminium demigod would do to him, and what it'd do his friends if the mothership ever found out about what they did. It was bad, and it wasn't just a bunch of young punks working the system; the corruption rained down from above and pooled deep at the bottom.
Jake and Ronald both spoke with smiles and contempt about their former boss-of-bosses, a regional manager from Apple corporate who they allege ran the store like it was her own personal playground. Jake says the rest of the gang wasn't much better. "It bends my brain to know that, statistically speaking, it's harder to get a job at the Apple Store than it is to get into some Ivy League schools," he says. "Yet somehow they're staffed by some of the most inept people this side of mastering the ability to speak."
These were the people at the front lines of Apple's retail empire. Add a hiring boom of young (possibly inept) guns, inject them with the ego-inflaming title of Genius, add liquor, and boom: risky business. But they were a team. And together they perpetrated and put up with some serious retail war crimes—stuff that'd make Tim Cook's fleece jacket unravel.
Both Ronald and Jake describe their regional manager as an insufferable tyrant. But everyone has a jerk boss, right? Probably not one who gives away merchandise in exchange for a weight loss operation: With little attempt to cover up her deal from the rest of the staff (who feared imminent termination), Ronald and Jake say the store's Apple corporate regional manager arranged the sale of heavily discounted computers to a local plastic surgeon in exchange for a stomach stapling procedure.
"She was notorious for pulling favours for businesses in the community who didn't want to play by Apple's rules," says Jake. "Lending computers out for over a month without any payment by manipulating inventory, issuing customer service exceptions for times when she would damage her products, and offering excessive discounts to receive additional favours outside of the workplace. She made quid pro quo an art."
Sometimes it was quid pro quo, and sometimes it was just eminent domain. The store staff's bonuses were slashed (or eliminated entirely) so that managers could reap big chunks of cash.
6:13:03 PM Ronald: you would not believe the managers bonuses
6:13:06 PM sambiddle: really?
6:13:09 PM Ronald: they took all of ours away
6:13:19 PM Ronald: one day she is driving a shitty saturn
6:13:26 PM Ronald: next it's a brand new BMW
6:13:36 PM Ronald: and they don't do shit
6:13:39 PM Ronald: it's amazing
This didn't last. Jake tells me the Sales Queen's retail despotism turned on her, and she was eventually fired—reportedly for "unfair hiring practices," "playing favourites," and "questionable activities surrounding use of store services." In other words, being crooked.
But the manager wasn't the only one gaming the system. Ronald admits that he, along with almost everyone else on the Genius staff, wildly and shamelessly exploited the store's lax and easily defrauded return and exchange policies for a virtually unlimited supply of Apple hardware. Want a free phone? Create a fake transaction.
5:59:30 PM Ronald: I think for awhile, none of us had a not up to date anything
5:59:36 PM Ronald: but it was worked through different ways
5:59:48 PM Ronald: no one "walked" out with anything
5:59:56 PM Ronald: we def abused our employee discounts
6:00:41 PM sambiddle: if you broke your phone
6:00:44 PM sambiddle: how did you just get a new one?
6:00:56 PM Ronald: created a case and replaced it
6:01:01 PM Ronald: just like a customer
6:01:25 PM Ronald: we did all the paper work, and replaced it out of service stock
6:01:31 PM Ronald: genius has a service stock
6:01:36 PM sambiddle: and nobody ever became suspicious?
6:01:38 PM Ronald: then there is retail stock
6:01:43 PM Ronald: nope
6:01:51 PM Ronald: we were the gatekeepers kind of
6:02:05 PM sambiddle: is there any kind of corporate oversight of stock?
6:02:08 PM Ronald: apple never had it in place to check up on shit like this
6:02:10 PM Ronald: they do now though
6:02:37 PM Ronald: I think it's more regional about oversight
6:03:03 PM Ronald: like I said. a manager would pull a phone to make someone happy and make the inventory guy "fix' the numbers
But the Genius crew wasn't just yanking all these phones so they could make calls with both ears. They took them just so they could break them.
Ronald used this inventory loophole—which he and Jake both say is harder to exploit these days—to go through countless iPhones for the sheer absurdity of it. At parties with other Apple employees, they'd all get tanked, pull out their phones, and spike them to the ground, laughing as the Gorilla Glass and circuits sprayed. Sounds more entertaining than flip cup, at least—and to Jake and the rest, it was a sort of game. How many phones could they squeeze out of oblivious, infinitely-stocked Apple? In the early days of the phone, the only limit seemed to be the audacity of the Geniuses. They even traded gear for free drinks.
Of course they were drunk. It was a stressful job. And how else could you get in the mood to ruin tens of thousands of pounds of iPhones for sport if not inebriated? Luckily, the Geniuses had a quick way to score drinks on Apple's dime:
5:32:43 PM Ronald: we had certain bars that hooked us up
5:32:58 PM Ronald: I think the store before ours gave this bar down the street a mac mini to serve music
5:33:08 PM Ronald: we always got super cheap tabs
5:33:19 PM sambiddle: because you'd give them hardware?
5:33:55 PM Jake: among other reasons
Among other reasons.
Forget the bar: a boozy workplace was the norm. "It's not uncommon for the Genius team to be drunk," Jake noted. Liquid impunity. If they didn't like you, they could ruin your computer, blame it on an act of God, and point you to the fine print you signed off on and certainly didn't read. Calling customer support to complain probably wouldn't get much done.
4:29:52 PM Ronald: oh, and the [24 hour] apple call centre
4:30:00 PM Ronald: they drink whiskey and do coke all night
4:30:09 PM sambiddle: where's that?
4:30:12 PM Ronald: [Redacted nearby city]
Scamming Apple wasn't always a straight path to free shots and making it rain iPhones—sometimes, the bad Geniuses were caught in the act. Jake could recount four separate instances of outright employee theft at the store, ranging from manipulating inventory lists to faking transactions to straight-up theft.
- One guy pretended to ring up transactions and then would cancel them out after "swiping" a card. This worked for a long time until someone finally noticed that they never gave their "customers," who were in on the scam, receipts. He swiped iPhones, computers, accessories, iPods, everything, but was eventually caught by management and forced to pay for what he'd taken (more than £10k) to avoid criminal charges.
- Another was stealing cash from the store's safe during nightly counts, which went on for several weeks, but was discovered by a manager who had to open the store the next morning and promptly fired.
- One Genius had a rather elaborate con going. He was taking service inventory with fake customers. His friends would come in to the store and have their devices replaced with an incorrect product (Say, an original iPhone swapped for a 3G, gratis). The new product was put into the customer's hand and the employee would put the defective product back into available inventory. This went on for more than a year before they were finally caught and canned, but up until then he was actually running an online business based on this scam.
- One idiot was simply giving product to friends for free, ended up getting caught was chased out of the store by a manager. That was the end of him.
What about the people who actually came to the store to buy things and get help? People like us? Ronald and his pals also enjoyed destruction as a form of payback. Ever been a jerk to an Apple Genius? Bad idea. Ever seen someone approach the bar with a noxious attitude and a litany of dumb questions? They probably got what they deserved. The Geniuses always get theirs. How? By pouring whiskey into a customer's Mac. Or by mocking them enough to erect a shrine in the back room to whiny, dumb customers:
6:07:35 PM] Ronald: ive used someone elses hard drive as a skateboard cause he told the store I smelled
6:08:05 PMRonald: or we just erase people's hard drives that are assholes
6:08:12 PM sambiddle: wouldn't they complain?
6:08:31 PM Ronald: they signed a form that legally made us not responsible for data
6:08:59 PM sambiddle: what happened when they came in and complained?
6:09:06 PM Ronald: show them what they signed
6:09:29 PM Ronald: we tell them multiple times that this could happen
Apple employees could be heartless to their customers, sure. But Jake ran into a completely other strand of disrespect at Apple—bastion of progressiveness and tolerance—when his manager gossiped to everyone he worked with that he was gay. Jake is gay. But when he started at the Apple store, he wasn't comfortable sharing this with everyone.
The question, which arrantly violates US labour law, was posed to Jake when he started working: "At one point, one of the managers asked me flat out if I was [gay]," Jake recalls, "but I said no and walked away. A few weeks after, I was asked the same question again. This time I said, 'Yes, is that a problem?'" Jake asked the manager to keep the disclosure between the two of them, but that didn't happen. "Several days go by," Jake remembers, "I'm standing near the Genius Bar, and one of the other concierges walks up to me and says, 'So I heard what [redacted] said about you...' I was bewildered." The entire store knew. The manager had outed Jake to the whole outfit, to anyone "who would spare him 5 minutes of their time."
None of this—the theft, the drinking, the blatant illegal questioning about sexual orientation by an employer—could be sustainable. It wasn't. Soon they all hit quit.
Neither Ronald nor Jake work at the Apple Store anymore. Most of their former coworkers were canned, fled to other jobs, or moved up within Apple. Jake took off, while Ronald had a less glamorous end, fighting his termination as wrongful—to no avail. In his official statemnet to the company, he said "I have been with Apple for almost 6 years total, and would like to continue to do so." But talking to him now, you don't get a sense of much fondness. A little nostagia, now and then: "I took a lot of Apple employees to the strip club, my girlfriend didn't know—actually, the Apple Store employees helped me cheat on my girlfriend a lot," but not much genuine joy. Except when he remembers that stomach-stapling regional manager. "I love that she got fucking fired. That bitch." Ronald remains, to my knowledge, unemployed.
Update: Multiple former and current Geniuses have written in to corroborate the events alleged in this article. More to come!