Watertown, MA — When I received an email that I was selected for a fellowship at a self-proclaimed feminist media company, I was absolutely thrilled. I was still pursuing my undergraduate degree at the time, so I reasoned with myself that I should take the unpaid fellowship because I could receive academic credit for it.
Before the fellowship started, I had to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). This was the first NDA that I signed, so I did not realize how Draconian it was in comparison to NDAs I had signed when doing contract work for other media companies and non-profit organizations. It made sense to me at the time that the NDA would prohibit me from sharing information like data, but I was wary of clauses that prevented me from speaking about my experiences within the media organization. I signed anyway. Big mistake.
My work with this company was fine for the first few months, but when I was promoted from a fellow to a writer (I got paid $10 an article), things started to go downhill. Meetings were canceled right before or during their scheduled time, and I basically had to beg to get paid my $10 per article.
I have an autoimmune disease and some other chronic health issues, so the stress of this took its toll. Then the head of the company started to voice support for disgruntled low-paid and volunteer workers at a rival company who were fed up with poor communication and minimal or no payment.
The hypocrisy annoyed me to no end. I wanted to speak up and say something publicly, but I could not because of the NDA. Even if I did, I was worried that other companies would not want to commission me or hire me for contract work because I expressed my concerns.
In a recent interview, Dr. Krystal L. Culler, DBH, M.A., the founder and director of Virtual Brain Health Center, told me that some NDAs are made to silence people. Like I was.
“Essentially, these clauses prohibit the employee from speaking negatively about the company and or disclosing their lived experiences while working at the company,” Dr. Culler said. “The language used in an NDA can be telling about a company, yet many people sign very stringent NDAs and work in environments that discourage speaking up about poor business practices and a negative workplace.”
Not being treated fairly at the media company made me very anxious. One way that I cope with anxiety is by talking to people about how an issue is affecting my mental health, but I was afraid to talk to my friends, due to the NDA. I did speak to other current and former employees – most of whom were volunteers – and they shared similar frustrations about the NDA keeping us from speaking out.
While my experience was frustrating, other people in media, particularly my BIPOC peers, face more consequences for speaking out than I do. A 2020 investigation by Jezebel found that there were rampant sexual harassment and exploitation of workers at Remezcla, a Latinx culture site. Its current and former workers also started a petition to be released from their NDAs on Change.org. Websites like Remezcla and the one that I worked for are important, as they share and employ people underrepresented in media. But, simply employing marginalized people is not enough, we need to be treated with respect and not be silenced.
Massive legacy media companies, unsurprisingly, also use NDAs to silence internal issues as well. In February, The Daily Beast reported that Condé Nast would no longer use NDAs related to harassment and discrimination, and “plans to release some employees from existing harassment or discrimination-linked arrangements.” Last year, current and former employees of Bon Appétit spoke out against systemic racism at BA and of their former editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport, who resigned after a photo of him doing “brownface” resurfaced on social media. If current and former employees had signed NDAs, they risked a lot by speaking out.
“It is important to understand all documents that ask for your signature and to ask questions to understand the implications regarding documents you are being asked to sign,” cautioned Dr. Culler. She also shared that the inclusion of confidentiality or non-disparagement provision in NDAs can silence people from speaking out about injustices that they experience or witness at work.
“If you have any concerns about an NDA clause and its impact on your future career, prepare questions to engage in a conversation to learn more about the potential implications of the NDA with an employment lawyer before you sign the document,” Dr. Culler said. “Gathering information to make an informed decision about signing an NDA for a new job position may also give you information about how the company views its employees and workplace culture.”
In a blog post, SignEasy outlined 10 questions that you should ask yourself before you sign an NDA. Some of which include: What kind of NDA are you signing?; Does the NDA define the cost of a breach?; Does the NDA clearly define what information is confidential? Other questions you should take into consideration include the timeframe of the NDA; if there are additional clauses; and what the consequences are if you violate the NDA.
Last summer, I decided to walk away from the media company where I worked because I knew it was not worth the stress or the labor. I did not make that much money from them, and I do not pay rent while living at home, so leaving was a viable option for me.
That being said, leaving or passing on a job opportunity is not something that everyone can do. Especially, as with COVID-19-related budget cuts, there are not as many jobs or freelance opportunities out there. My biggest regret from this situation is not leaving the company earlier and pitching bigger publications before the industry was hit by COVID-19. Take it from me: staying at a publication that did not value me sucked, but being able to find support in others without fear of retribution would have made it less isolating.