For months, Ifeoma Ozoma was unable to tell anyone, not even her closest friends and family, why she had quit her high-profile job at Pinterest.
Even when he made speeches about his job at the technology company, a confidentiality agreement (NDA) he signed prohibited him from sharing the reason why he resigned from his role as a public policy manager, where he became involved with the press, elected officials and health experts. .
But on June 15, 2020, Ozoma reached a breaking point. Amid national unrest and racial justice protests, Pinterest had teamed up with other tech firms to publicly endorse the Black Lives Matter movement. Ozoma responded in a tweet, challenging his NDA to go public with the racial profiling he said he had. experienced in the company.
“I knew I could be sued for bankruptcy, but it was more important to me to set the record straight about the hypocrisy,” she said of her decision to speak up.
Now, through legislation that she has co-sponsored in California called the Silent No More Act, she hopes to open a path to ensuring that workers who have experienced discrimination or harassment in the workplace do not have to face the difficult decisions she made.
The bill was approved by the California Senate this week and will now go to the assembly, after which, if passed, it will remain on Gavin Newsom’s desk for signature.
“Taking a step forward shouldn’t be as painful and shouldn’t carry as much risk for someone as it does today,” Ozoma said. “This bill is bound to change that.”
How NDAs Evolved Toward a Gag Order
A nondisclosure agreement is a legally binding contract that prohibits a worker from sharing certain information about their former employer.
The origin of the NDA is murky: it seems that such contracts began to appear in the context of maritime law in the 1940s before being added to all kinds of agreements starting in the 1980s. according to a Columbia journalism magazine report.
Today they are in a number of contracts, particularly in technology and entertainment law, and prevent former employees from expressing themselves as part of a severance agreement. Doing so jeopardizes the worker’s severance pay and could result in legal action. Officially, the contracts are meant to prevent employees from sharing industry secrets. But they have practically become so radical that they also often keep harassment and discrimination cases under wraps.
NDAs entered public discourse amid the #MeToo movement around 2017. Many victims of Harvey Weinstein, who has been accused of assaulting more than 80 women, said they were unable to speak due to strict confidentiality clauses.
However, its use in the tech world remains much less well known, Ozoma said. “The contracts that people were outraged about are almost identical to what we see in the tech world,” he said. “I think [NDA]The messages have been left behind because they are used to protect powerful people everywhere. “
California Sen. Connie M Leyva, co-author of the No More Silent Act, said the bill would “empower survivors and help hold perpetrators accountable for their intolerable actions,” extending to all industries that require such agreements in the state, including technology and entertainment.
“It is unacceptable that workers are forced to remain silent after being subjected to this egregious behavior, especially when mandatory silence only serves to perpetuate the culture of secrecy that allows abusers to continue to torment and abuse other workers,” he said. .
Pinterest experience: ‘they denigrated, abused and retaliated against us’
Ozoma left Pinterest around the same time as his former colleague Aerica Shimizu Banks in June 2020. Both say they had to fight to receive fair pay compared to their white colleagues, faced racist comments from their manager, and were retaliated against for advocating for change.
Ozoma also says the company failed to protect her when a colleague shared her personal information with hate sites and launched an investigation into her instead of investigating the incident.
Ozoma emailed Pinterest founder and CEO Ben Silbermann to share examples of the harassment he received and express his disappointment with the way the company had handled the situation. Silbermann said at the time that he was “personally concerned” that the company “did not take the right steps,” according to Ozoma, and promised to investigate the incident. However, Ozoma says, he never contacted her to follow up.
By leaving Pinterest, Ozoma accepted a severance agreement that included half a year of pay. But it also required him to sign a confidentiality agreement to make sure he wouldn’t talk about his time there, including why he left.
He said dealing with the consequences of his time on Pinterest had been as painful as dealing with the death of his mother years before. Not being able to discuss it with anyone made it particularly difficult, he said.
“It puts you in a position where you can’t be honest in your personal relationships and you can’t be honest in your professional relationships,” he said. “It is an extremely lonely and isolated place.”
Banks is not personally involved with the Silenced No More Act, but has publicly stated her support. He said he spoke about his Pinterest experience for reasons similar to Ozoma’s. – was angered by the company’s public support for the racial justice movement after experiencing racism internally.
“I couldn’t stand by and let a company get away with publishing ‘Black Lives Matter’ when they weren’t acting as if the lives of blacks mattered in the negotiations that had just concluded with us,” Banks previously told The Guardian.
Pinterest said it supports the legislation, pointing to an earlier statement by Silbermann. “Pinterest supports No more silenced act, a workplace protection bill that encourages transparency and expands protections for employees who speak out about their experiences with workplace discrimination, ”Silbermann wrote in that statement. “We want all employees to feel safe, supported and empowered to raise any concerns about their work experience.”
Ozoma has criticized Silbermann’s statement, saying that Pinterest has not given in to pressure to release past and current employees from the NDAs so they can speak freely about their experiences.
Pinterest did not respond to questions about its current use of NDA. The company declined to comment on the accusations by Ozoma and Banks about their time working for the company, but previously told The Guardian that it does not share details about specific employee situations “out of respect for the privacy of those involved.”.
Whistleblower Handbook and What’s Next
Ozoma said that with little federal framework to help workers when it comes to speaking up despite an NDA, he is looking for other ways to help workers outside of California. In 2018, New York passed a bill targeting NDAs related to sexual harassment in particular. But there is little other state legislative action and no federal action.
In addition to his work on the Silenced No More bill, Ozoma has secured funding from the Minderoo Foundation’s Border Technology Initiative to help educate shareholders on how to pressure companies to change the NDA rules.
She believes that the individuals and organizations that fund companies could have more influence over their policies than former employees and other societal pressures.
“This does not replace federal action,” he said. “But in a situation like ours, where it is very difficult to pass laws at the federal level, we can introduce changes in the form of a shareholder resolution so that a company decides to adopt it before the legislation forces it to do so.”
She is also, with funding from the Omidyar Network foundation and investment firm, creating a guide to help potential whistleblowers make the decision to speak up. It will include advice that she says she gives to people who frequently approach her asking what to do when they want to publicize abuse or other information of public interest.
The manual will include advice on four main areas of whistleblowing: legal issues, dealing with the media and the press component to make public, information and physical security, and sharing stories of other whistleblowers for reference.
“People shouldn’t have to rely on whispering networks for justice,” Ozoma said. “You shouldn’t have to meet people to get information on how to go through these steps.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism