In an important victory for Silicon Valley activists and California workers, the governor has signed a law making it illegal for companies to bar employees from speaking out about harassment and discrimination.
The new law is the result of hard-fought advocacy work by those in the tech industry who have long spoken out against the restrictive confidentiality arrangements, known as nondisclosure agreements or NDAs, which are intended to protect industry secrets but have also created a culture of silence around wrongdoing.
NDAs often keep incidents of harassment and discrimination under wraps, forcing employees to keep quiet or face legal actions and fines. They became a point of debate after the #MeToo movement, when it was revealed that Harvey Weinstein used such contracts to keep his victims from speaking out.
“This act is a huge step in the right direction in eliminating cultures of secrecy around misogyny and racism in the workplace, especially in California’s tech industry,” said Veena Dubal, an associate professor of law at the University of California, Hastings, and a tech worker advocate.
The Silenced No More Act was co-sponsored by Ifeoma Ozoma, a former policy manager at Pinterest who broke her own NDA to go public with allegations of discrimination at the company in 2020, along with her colleague Aerica Shimizu Banks. Both alleged Pinterest did little to protect them from harassment inside and outside the company.
“Coming forward about the discrimination and retaliation I faced at Pinterest felt like the closing of one chapter, and the work on this bill has been a new beginning,” Ozoma told the Guardian. “Tens of millions of people will be silenced no more, and I can’t imagine a better way to have turned pain into progress.”
The law was sponsored by California senator Connie Leyva and will expand protections against secret workplace settlements. It will also prohibit the use of confidentiality agreements for workers leaving a company.
“It is absolutely unacceptable for an employer to try to silence a worker because they were a victim of any type of harassment or discrimination,” Leyva said in a statement.
Although the bill was spearheaded and supported by tech workers, it will apply to all California industries and larger firms based in the state will also need to comply.
The Silenced No More act builds on an existing law passed in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which banned the use of confidentiality agreements in cases of sexual harassment to include other kinds of discrimination, such as pay discrimination or bias based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, disability or religion.
“If they so wish, workers should always be able to speak openly about harassment or discrimination that they suffered in the workplace so that they can demand accountability and prevent future abuses by perpetrators,” Leyva said.
Initially, very few tech companies supported the bill, although Pinterest announced its support in April, saying it would adhere to the rules of the new bill regardless of whether it passed.
“We want every employee to feel safe, championed and empowered to raise any concerns about their work experience,” CEO Ben Silbermann wrote in the statement.