Tech

Tech whistleblowers are having a moment, and one woman who's been there has found a new way to help

Key Points
  • Ifeoma Ozoma, a former employee at Pinterest and Google, just published a resource guide for tech workers who are considering going public with complaints about their employer.
  • Also this week, the bill she helped write that limits nondisclosure agreements, was signed into law in California.
  • Ozoma told CNBC that she's using skills she learned at various tech companies to equip employees facing misconduct.
Former Google, Facebook and Pinterest employee Ifeoma Ozoma launched a free resource guide and a new California law in the same week.
Ifeoma Ozoma

Whistleblowers are getting louder in Silicon Valley. Most notable is ex-Facebook employee Frances Haugen, who testified in front of Congress this week after revealing documents that showed the company is aware of the harm its products cause.

Also this week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the Silenced No More Act, which prohibits employers from using nondisclosure agreement to muzzle complaints about discrimination.

The timing was fortuitous for Ifeoma Ozoma, a former Pinterest employee, who's recently been spending much of her energy trying to create a safe space for tech whistleblowers. In 2020, Ozoma and another Black ex-Pinterest employee went public with claims of discrimination and retaliation during their time at the social media company.

On Wednesday, Ozoma launched a free online resource guide for tech workers who are considering making workplace complaints. It's called "The Tech Worker Handbook," and Ozoma says it's meant to help those who need basic information with how to share their stories of misconduct and how to prepare for what comes next.

"It's really depressing stuff when you get into it," Ozoma, 29, said in an interview. "When you look at all the expenses you need to be planning for when you decide you're going to potentially leave a company, it is such a huge decision to make for yourself and your family. I think we're doing individuals a disservice if we're not providing any kind of support or resources. It's basically saying 'throw yourself into the lion's den and good luck.'"

Ozoma's guide reached over 30,000 website views its first day and received praise from many across the industry. Ozoma owns the domain and is overseeing the site. She's tapped dozens of tech workers and organizations to help contribute to the guide.

She told CNBC that since launching the guide, she's received hundreds of inquiries from workers, asking how to get involved and whether they should speak out about their company. Ellen Pao, a tech investor and former Reddit CEO, who sued venture firm Kleiner Perkins for gender discrimination in 2012, praised Ozoma's work.

"I think it's incredibly important to set people's expectations," Pao said. "Your company is going to come after you like we saw with the PR smear against Frances," she said, referring to Facebook's efforts to discredit Haugen during and after her testimony.

Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee, testifies during the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security hearing titled Children's Online Safety-Facebook Whistleblower, in Russell Building on Tuesday, October 5, 2021.
Tom Williams | CQ-Roll Call, Inc. | Getty Images

Ozoma said her goal isn't to convince people to blow the whistle but to show them their options. The guide offers pages of resources for advice on media, legal actions and security precautions.

An assessment gives workers several questions to consider before speaking out. Ozoma warns about the potential loss of income and health care that could come as a result of being fired or leaving a position. She said she had to pay $900 a month for health insurance when she left Pinterest.

DMs aren't going to cut it

Ozoma said employees approach her each week for advice, often by text, but having worked in the tech industry, she knows software is a necessary part of the equation.

"I am happy to respond to people's DMs for the rest of my life, but that is really not a scalable way for tech workers to find out what they need in order to protect themselves," she said.

Erika Cheung is another one of the better-known whistleblowers in Silicon Valley. She's among the former Theranos employees who came forward, alleging the blood-testing company was producing faulty results.

Ozoma and Cheung spoke months ago about the various costs to workers who speak out about their workplace conditions and the need for more resources. Ozoma included Cheung's voice in the guide.

"You will face retaliation and lots of difficulties navigating the legal system, but the thing that kept me going was knowing that the company was wrong and causing harm to people by hiding a certain defect in their product," Cheung said in the handbook. "That anchor is what I turned to when I was facing especially difficult circumstances." 

Surrounded by local, state and national officials, California Governor Gavin Newsom speaks during a news conference at Bolsa Chica State Beach in Huntington Beach, site of the the recent offshore oil spill, on Tuesday, October 5, 2021. waters.
Mark Rightmire | MediaNews Group | Orange County Register via Getty Images

Both the Silenced No More Act and her handbook came after more than a year of lobbying and organizing, Ozoma said. Ozoma co-sponsored the bill and helped gather support from thousands of people in the tech industry.

She said she used skills acquired while working in various public policy roles for Google, Facebook and Pinterest.

"I learned how to work with policymakers, I learned how to lobby and engage with press, which have been huge parts of this," she said. "It's been an interesting way to apply these learnings but now for workers and not just my employers."

Ozoma said she worked with former colleagues from each of her past employers. At times, that meant educating people who didn't have the same experience.

"Most folks in the tech industry have no idea how legislations work," Ozoma said. "It's been a painstaking process conducting meetings with offices of senators over Zoom and asking supporters to sit in on hour-long calls for the chance to say audibly they support the bill."

'Too much for a person to bare'

One person in Ozoma's corner is Ariella Steinhorn, founder and CEO of Lioness, an organization that helps workers tell their stories of misconduct allegations. Lioness published an essay in September by 21 former and current employees of Blue Origin who described a toxic work culture at the Jeff Bezos-led space company.

"We are in support and in awe of Ifeoma's much-needed work in this space," said Steinhorn.

Steinhorn added that she's seen an influx of workers from the tech industry inquiring about how to share their stories externally after failed internal attempts.

"There's definitely a need for something like this," she said of Ozoma's guidebook. "There's usually such a mismatch between the reality and the image of a company and it's too much for a person to bare themselves."

Ozoma is now living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she moved in 2020. While she won't get to experience the immediate results of her work on the California bill, she's pushing for company executives and shareholders to include language from the law in their NDAs.

David Barrett, CEO of expense management software start-up Expensify, told Protocol that he agreed to include a sentence in NDAs, saying "Nothing in this agreement prevents you from discussing or disclosing information about unlawful acts in the workplace, such as harassment or discrimination or any other conduct you have reason to believe is unlawful."

Ozoma said she hopes the California bill will spark similar action in other states, especially as distributed workforces become the norm. 

Chelsey Glasson, who worked at Google for five years, told CNBC that Ozoma's effort on the bill inspired her to approach lawmakers in Washington state. She said they seem receptive to potentially matching the bill. 

Glasson filed a lawsuit against Google in July 2020, after the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission opened an investigation into the complaint of pregnancy discrimination. Her trial is set for January.

Glasson's complaint led to a bill that passed the Washington state Senate, extending the statute of limitations for filing a pregnancy discrimination complaint from six months to a year.

She said that Ozoma's guide gives potential whistleblowers "a sense of community."

"I continue to hear from so many workers who are experiencing misconduct and terrified because they don't know what do," Glasson said.

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