The painful cost of confidentiality agreements: 5 tech workers reveal how restrictive NDAs left them struggling to get a job and isolated from friends

Advertisement
The painful cost of confidentiality agreements: 5 tech workers reveal how restrictive NDAs left them struggling to get a job and isolated from friends
JORGE GUERRERO/AFP via Getty Images

Evading questions from family. Seeking treatment for depression and PTSD. Struggling to land a new job after dozens of interviews. Signing a separation agreement to keep access to health insurance.

These are a few of the circumstances tech workers experienced after they were bound to silence by strict nondisclosure and non-disparagement agreements. The workers shared their stories with Insider anonymously as part of a sweeping NDA transparency project published this week.

Many of the workers said they hadn't shared agreements with anyone previously, even family. For some, discussing their agreement was a nerve wracking, often confusing endeavor.

Advertisement

"It says I can't even acknowledge its existence so I don't know if that's normal or what," said a former TaskRabbit employee who shared their nondisclosure agreement with Insider, echoing comments from many other tech workers. "I could only get severance if I signed."

While others said talking about their experiences made them feel heard for the first time. "After talking with you I felt a weight lifted that I didn't know was there," said Kira (not her real name), who signed an NDA as part of a settlement agreement after she was raped by a male colleague during a business trip.

Kira had been a rising star at the multi-billion software company she worked for at the time of the trip in 2019. Since then, she said she's lost contact with most friends and colleagues, many of whom still don't know why she suddenly left the company. Kira spent most of the past year battling her insurance company, which initially denied her short-term disability claim after she was diagnosed with PTSD and major depressive disorder.

Advertisement

She borrowed money from her parents to help pay her legal bills during a nearly months-long mediation with the company. In the end, after her attorneys' fees Kira said she received the equivalent of about one year's worth of salary as part of her settlement agreement, in which she resigned and was barred from discussing her experience.

"It was the most eye-opening experience I think I'll ever go through in my life," Kira said.

"I can't talk about it" is not a great answer during a job interview

While the scope of nondisclosure agreements has been curbed in part by new legislation in the wake of the #MeToo movement, the toll these secrecy pacts can have on workers often remains a mystery, experts say. Insider published many workers' stories in an effort to bring transparency to a notoriously opaque aspect of Silicon Valley, where employees frequently change jobs and swap stories with one another in the shadows.

Advertisement

One worker who shared her NDA with Insider left her job at a high-profile security company after just four months. The company was the subject of a news article that described a misogynistic, often chaotic work environment, and the woman wanted out. But because her job involved sitting in on executive meetings where workplace misconduct was discussed in detail, she said she was asked to sign a strict non-disparagement agreement in exchange for keeping her signing bonus.

The agreement prohibited her from making "any written or oral statements or engage in any action that disparages or defames Company, its products, or its employees or officers."

When questions came up in job interviews about why she left her previous employer, the woman said she had to dance around the subject. At one point, she said she suggested an interviewer "just Google them" and hoped they would "see the culture I was trying to get away from."

Advertisement

Also read: The 6 most important things to look for in your NDA

Another tech worker who left an AI startup last year due in part to ideological issues with the direction of the business, faced a similar dilemma during job interviews. He spent months applying for jobs in his field, paying his bills with the four months of severance he received as part of a separation agreement.

"I had to figure out an answer to 'Why did you leave your last job?'" he said. "Most of the time I broke my NDA because it just wasn't a very satisfying answer to say, 'I can't talk about it.'"

Advertisement

But while both workers eventually did land new jobs, many who spoke with Insider did not. Take the story of one woman who worked in Los Angeles for a music tech company, for example.

After she notified her HR rep that she had been being sexually harassed by a customer for weeks, the woman said she was told that she "should be flattered" and that she needn't worry about the customer, who represented a major client based across the country.

The woman's request to be reassigned to a different department that wouldn't require her to answer customer calls was denied. Eventually, she wound up in the hospital and was diagnosed with PTSD. "I couldn't handle it anymore," she said.

Advertisement

Since then, she's secured a number job interviews, she said, often advancing to the final interview stage. But so far she's been unable to land her next job despite more than a decade of experience in her field.

She attributes this in large part to the strict non-disparagement agreement she signed. She can't discuss the reason she left her previous company, and all the positive performance metrics she earned over the years were no longer available. "The minute I was gone, it all got erased."

You can read our full story if you're an Insider subscriber:

We reviewed 36 NDAs from major tech companies and discovered how far Silicon Valley's giants will go to silence and control their employees

If you'd like share your story as part of Insider's ongoing coverage of NDAs, reach out directly to reporter Matt Drange by email - ndatransparency@insider.com - encrypted text via Signal, WhatsApp or Telegram: +1(626) 233-1063, or snail mail Attn: Matt Drange, Business Insider, 535 Mission Street, 14th Floor. San Francisco, CA 94105.

Advertisement
{{}}