Apple’s new mission: retaining happy employees

There have been quite a few huge things that have happened at Apple(s aapl) this year with historical implications: the Chinese labor expose in the New York Times, the dividend, the $1 billion Samsung verdict, and the dismissal of iOS software chief Scott Forstall. But between all of those momentous events, CEO Tim Cook has been making smaller and important tweaks within the company: how Apple treats its employees.

On Monday night the Wall Street Journal reported that Apple is offering more perks to its workers than ever before. The company is allowing sabbaticals for some employees, being more aggressive about counter-offers, and being more clear about stock benefits. The most interesting new perk may be “Blue Sky,” which is reportedly a couple-week-long period where engineers can work on a personal project or idea during normal business hours.

If these “perks” sounds rather run-of-the-mill to you, it’s because they are — for many modern companies. Especially other tech companies surrounding Apple in Silicon Valley. But Apple under Steve Jobs didn’t do much in the way of employee perks — the reward for working at Apple was the satisfaction of working at Apple. As a result, the company ended up attracting a certain kind of employee. (According to the Journal‘s report, at a session of Apple’s internal training program recently “officials discussed how the company is in some ways more like the military than a traditional corporation.” Yikes.)

Few will argue against Apple being more clear about the value of stock offers. But the argument against “20 percent time,” as it’s called at rival Google,(s GOOG) is that it distracts from Apple’s core mission: making the best products and experiences it can for customers. But creating happier employees should be a core mission as well.

Cook cares a great deal about the image of Apple, as he’s demonstrated throughout his first year-plus as permanent chief executive. So it makes sense he would be just as aware of how the company appears internally as he does to the people who buy his products or his stock: he made adding an employee charitable matching program one of his first priorities last August, and he’s also instituted more generous employee discounts on products.

He may not be the kind of boss that drops in for a lunch at the company cafeteria, but it’s clear Cook thinks a lot about the people who make Apple what it is.