SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
If you work at a big company in America, you may have had to sign a nondisclosure agreement. NDAs keep workers from speaking out about what happens at the office, including discrimination and harassment. They're as broad as they are common, and as member station KQED's Rachael Myrow reports, now they're being challenged in California.
RACHAEL MYROW, BYLINE: NDAs scare most people away from speaking publicly about their employers for nearly any reason about almost anything, especially in Silicon Valley.
IFEOMA OZOMA: They're multibillion-dollar corporations. If Pinterest decided to sue me, I would be bankrupted.
MYROW: That's Ifeoma Ozoma, who used to have a high-profile position at the social media company, Pinterest. She left a couple of years ago after complaining about racial discrimination among other things. She stayed silent about it because she'd signed an NDA. But then last summer, Pinterest joined thousands of American companies voicing support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Put off by what she saw as performative hypocrisy, Ozoma decided to break her NDA and go public.
OZOMA: I wasn't being paid fairly, and - according to the company's own chart, while I was still the public face of all of the work that was being used to prop the company up as a responsible tech company in a sea of irresponsible ones.
MYROW: Pinterest first insisted Ozoma was treated fairly, then acknowledged parts of its culture were broken and praised unnamed employees for the, quote, "courage to share your experiences honestly and openly." Today, Ozoma agrees it did take courage, courage she exercised only after consulting with a lawyer.
OZOMA: The agreements are written so broadly, you can't even legally speak to your spouse about what happened. It really is a gag order. And it compounds the harm because you've already experienced the discrimination or harassment. You've been pushed out of your job, and now you can't even explain to people why you left.
CONNIE LEYVA: You can't fix a problem if you don't know there's a problem.
MYROW: State Senator Connie Leyva, a Democrat from Southern California, has written a bill that would help workers like Ozoma. While California law protects employees who speak out about sex or gender-related harassment, this new bill would do more. It would also protect speech about race, ethnicity, age, disability and religion. Leyva says the #MeToo Movement and Black Lives Matter have exposed the way NDAs serve as corporate cover for illegal behavior.
LEYVA: Sure, if you're Coca-Cola, and you don't want somebody giving away the secret ingredients of Coke, no problem. We understand that. But people should always have the right to be able to speak out against any form of discrimination that they've had at the job place.
MYROW: Typically, companies in California leave it to trade groups and chambers of commerce that represent business to come out publicly against bills they don't like. But this time, they are all silent. That speaks volumes to labor law professor Veena Dubal at the University of California, Hastings.
VEENA DUBAL: I don't imagine that any of these very sophisticated PR representatives at these companies would come out and say, no, we're against this bill, even though it may very well do real damage to companies' reputations where there are cultures of harassment and discrimination.
MYROW: Even though this bill, if it passes, would only apply in California, Ozoma says she hopes it will bring an end to a long-standing form of corporate overreach at some of the world's largest companies.
OZOMA: What I'm hoping it does is shift the court of public opinion, along with the legislation such that companies think twice before going after employees who do decide to break NDAs.
MYROW: As for her, after working for Google and Facebook as well as Pinterest, she's done being anyone's employee. Ozoma has launched her own consulting business, focusing on tech accountability issues. For NPR News, I'm Rachael Myrow.
(SOUNDBITE OF MENAHAN STREET BAND'S "QUEENS HIGHWAY")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.