For months, Ifeoma Ozoma couldn’t tell anyone – not even her closest friends and family – why she had left her high-profile job at Pinterest.
Even as she gave speeches about her work at the tech company, a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) she signed forbade her to share the reason for quitting her role as a public policy manager, where she engaged with press, elected officials and health experts.
But on 15 June 2020, Ozoma reached a breaking point. Amid national unrest and protests for racial justice, Pinterest had joined other tech firms in publicly backing the Black Lives Matter movement. Ozoma responded in a tweet, defying her NDA to make public the racial discrimination she said she had experienced at the company.
“I knew I might be sued into bankruptcy, but I cared more about setting the record straight on the hypocrisy of it,” she said of her decision to speak out.
Now, through legislation she has co-sponsored in California called the Silenced No More Act, she hopes to clear a path to ensure workers who have experienced workplace discrimination or harassment don’t have to face the difficult choices she did.
The bill passed the California senate this week, and will now go to the assembly, after which – if passed – it will continue to Gavin Newsom’s desk to be signed.
“Coming forward should not be as painful, and should not carry as much risk for someone, as it currently does,” Ozoma said. “This bill is meant to change that.”
How NDAs evolved into a gag order
A non-disclosure agreement is a legally binding contract that bars a worker from sharing certain information about their former employer.
The origin of the NDA is murky – it seems such contracts first began popping up 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 Review report.
Today they are found in a number of contracts – particularly in technology and entertainment law – and prevent former employees from speaking out as part of a severance agreement. To do so jeopardizes a worker’s severance pay and could result in legal action. Officially, the contracts are meant to stop employees from sharing industry secrets. But practically they have become so sweeping they often also keep instances of harassment and discrimination under wraps.
NDAs entered the 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 out due to strict confidentiality clauses.
Their use in the tech world has remained far less known, however, Ozoma said. “The contracts people were outraged about are nearly identical to what we see in the tech world,” she said. “I think [NDA]s have been left behind because they are used to protect powerful people everywhere.”
The California senator Connie M Leyva, a co-author of the Silenced No More Act, said the bill would “empower survivors and help to hold perpetrators accountable for their intolerable actions”, extending to all industries that require such agreements in the state – including tech and entertainment.
“It is unacceptable that workers would be forced to stay silent after being subjected to this atrocious behavior, especially when mandatory silence only serves to perpetuate the culture of secrecy that allows abusers to continue tormenting and abusing other workers,” she said.
Experience at Pinterest: they ‘denigrated, abused, and retaliated against us’
Ozoma left Pinterest around the same time as her former colleague Aerica Shimizu Banks in June 2020. Both say they had to fight to be paid fairly compared with 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 inquiry into her rather than investigating the incident.
Ozoma emailed Pinterest’s founder and chief executive officer, Ben Silbermann, to share examples of the harassment she received and express her disappointment with the way the company had handled the situation. Silbermann said at the time he was “personally concerned” the company “didn’t take the right steps”, according to Ozoma, and vowed to look into the incident. However, Ozoma says, she was never contacted with follow-up.
Upon leaving Pinterest, Ozoma accepted a severance agreement that included half a year of pay. But it also required her to sign an NDA ensuring she would not speak out about her time there, including about why she left.
She said dealing with the fallout of her time at Pinterest had been as painful as grappling with the death of her mother years before. Being unable to discuss it with anyone made it uniquely difficult, she said.
“It puts you in a position where you cannot be honest in your personal relationships, and you cannot be honest in your professional relationships,” she said. “It’s an extremely lonely, isolating place to be.”
Banks is not involved personally with the Silenced No More Act but has publicly stated her support. She said she spoke out about her experience at Pinterest for reasons similar to those of Ozoma – she was angered by the company’s public support of the movement for racial justice having experienced racism internally.
“I could not stand by and let a company get away with posting ‘Black Lives Matter’ when they did not act like black lives mattered in the negotiations they had just concluded with us,” Banks previously told the Guardian.
Pinterest said it supports the legislation, pointing at an earlier statement from Silbermann. “Pinterest supports the Silenced No More 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 every employee to feel safe, championed and empowered to raise any concerns about their work experience.”
Ozoma has been critical of Silbermann’s statement, saying Pinterest has failed to cave to pressure to release former and current employees from NDAs so they can speak freely of their experiences.
Pinterest did not respond to questions regarding its current use of NDAs. The company declined to comment on Ozoma and Banks’ allegations about their time working for the company, but have previously told the Guardian it does not share details about specific employee situations “out of respect for the privacy of those involved”.
Whistleblower handbook and what else is next
Ozoma said with little federal framework to help workers when it comes to speaking out despite an NDA, she is looking into other ways to help workers outside California. In 2018, New York passed a bill targeting NDAs pertaining to sexual harassment in particular. But little other state legislative action and no federal action exists.
In addition to her work on the Silenced No More bill, Ozoma has secured funding from the Minderoo Foundation’s Frontier Technology Initiative to help educate shareholders on how to pressure companies to change NDA rules.
She believes the individuals and organizations bankrolling companies could have more sway over their policies than former employees and other social pressure.
“This is not a replacement for federal action,” she said. “But in a situation like we have, where it’s really hard to get laws passed at the federal level, we can introduce change in the form of a shareholder resolution so a company decides to adopt it before they’re forced to by legislation.”
She is also – with funding from the Omidyar Network foundation and investment firm – creating a guide to help would-be whistleblowers make the decision to speak out. It will include advice she says she gives people who frequently reach out to her asking what to do when they want to go public about abuse or other information of public interest.
The handbook will include advice on four main areas of whistleblowing: legal issues, dealing with the media and press component of going public, information and physical security, and the sharing of other whistleblowers’ stories for reference.
“People should not have to rely on whisper networks for justice,” Ozoma said. “You shouldn’t have to know people in order to have information on how to take these steps.”