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'A gag order for life' — How nondisclosure agreements silence and control workers in Silicon Valley

NDA excerpt only allowing an employee to state they cannot discuss a matter at handExcerpt of NDA provided to Insider by tech employee

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Kira isn't allowed to talk about the business trip she took to Texas in 2019, when she says a male colleague drugged and raped her. She awoke the next morning to find his credit card on the floor of her hotel bathroom, her underwear torn, and her body bruised.

Kira canceled the second leg of her trip and flew home, where she called her boss to describe what happened. Her boss notified human resources, setting off a chain of events that made it impossible for Kira to continue working at the multibillion-dollar tech company where she was a contract manager.

At the end of a contentious legal mediation in the months that followed, Kira signed a settlement agreement that forced her to resign. In exchange for roughly a year's worth of her salary, Kira is now bound to silence, facing the threat of steep financial penalties if she ever tells her story.

"It angers me to my core," said Kira, whose NDA stipulates that, in response to questions about the status of her allegations, she can only say "I can't discuss it" or "I would prefer not to discuss the matter."

Kira's experience might be extreme, but the strict nondisclosure terms of the settlement agreement she signed are incredibly common. Every day, thousands of people sign nondisclosure agreements when they start a new job or leave their current one. Most of the time, especially for employees starting a job, the agreements are just one more document in a stack of first-day paperwork.

But the agreements can be far more consequential than many people realize.

Nondisclosure agreements, or NDAs, strike directly at the heart of one of America's most fundamental individual liberties, limiting what someone can talk about and who they can talk to. Yet even as they've spread throughout the corporate world in the span of a few decades, the dizzying scope and legality of the contracts have received relatively little scrutiny.

In Silicon Valley, the culture of secrecy that companies have long justified in the name of protecting innovation has ballooned into sweeping strictures that often prevent employees from discussing everything from embarrassing management mistakes to workplace misconduct and abuse.

To understand how nondisclosure agreements have come to form the backbone of Silicon Valley's culture of secrecy, Insider reviewed 36 agreements shared by tech workers at companies ranging from Fortune 500 giants like Facebook,  Google an Apple, to smaller startups.

The scope and breadth of the agreements stunned academic experts and employment lawyers interviewed for this story. Taken together, they provide one of the most comprehensive reviews to date of these widely used contracts.

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

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