In the same week, former Google, Facebook, and Pinterest employee Ifeoma Ozoma introduced a free resource guide and new California laws.
In Silicon Valley, the whistleblower is getting louder and louder. The most notable is Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee, who testified before Congress this week after previously disclosed documents show that the company is aware of the harm caused by its products.
Also this week, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed the “No More Silence Act,” which prohibits employers from using confidentiality agreements to cover up complaints about discrimination.
For former Pinterest employee Ifeoma Ozoma, this timing was accidental. She has recently spent a lot of energy trying to create a safe space for technical whistleblowers. In 2020, Ozoma and another black former Pinterest employee publicly claimed that they were discriminated against and retaliated during their tenure at this social media company.
On Wednesday, Ozoma launched a free online resource guide for skilled workers who are considering filing a workplace complaint. It is called the “Technical Worker’s Handbook,” and Ozoma said it aims to help those who need basic information on how to share stories of their misconduct and how to prepare for what comes next.
Ozoma, 29, said in an interview: “It’s really frustrating when you get caught up in it.” Your family’s decision is so huge. I think we’re causing personal harm if we don’t provide any form of support or resources. It’s basically saying’throw yourself into the lions’ den and good luck.’”
Ozoma’s guide had more than 30,000 website views on the first day and was well received by many people in the industry. Ozoma owns the domain and is responsible for supervising the site. She has hired dozens of technical workers and organizations to help write the guide.
She told CNBC that since the publication of the guide, she has received hundreds of workers’ inquiries about how to participate and whether they should talk about their company. In 2012, Ellen Pao, a technology investor who sued the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins and former Reddit CEO, praised Ozoma’s work.
“I think it’s very important to set people’s expectations,” Pao said. “Your company will hunt you down like we saw the PR slander against Francis,” she said, referring to Facebook’s efforts to discredit Haugen during and after her testimony.
Former Facebook employee Frances Haugen testified at the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security Hearing on Tuesday, October 5, 2021, at the Russell Building. The hearing was entitled “Children’s Online Safety- Facebook whistleblower”.
Tom Williams | CQ-Roll Call, Inc. | Getty Images
Ozoma said her goal is not to persuade people to whistle, but to show them their options. The guide provides a multi-page resource that can provide advice on media, legal actions, and safety precautions.
The assessment provides workers with several questions to consider before speaking out. Ozoma warned that being fired or leaving may result in potential loss of income and health care. She said that when she left Pinterest, she had to pay $900 a month for medical insurance.
DM won’t cut it
Ozoma said employees ask her for advice every week, usually through text messages, but after working in the technology industry, she knows that software is a necessary part of the equation.
“I am very happy to respond to people’s DM for the rest of my life, but this is really not a scalable way for tech workers to find out what they need to protect themselves,” she said.
Erika Cheung is another well-known whistleblower in Silicon Valley. She was one of the former employees of Theranos who came forward to accuse the blood testing company of producing false results.
A few months ago, Ozoma and Cheung talked about the various costs of workers who openly talked about their workplace conditions and the need for more resources. Ozoma included Cheung’s voice in the guide.
Zhang said in the manual: “You will face retaliation and many difficulties in navigating the legal system, but what keeps me moving is knowing that the company is wrong and causing harm to people by hiding certain defects in the product.” When I was facing a particularly difficult situation, I turned to that anchor.”
California Governor Gavin Newsom speaks at a press conference held on Tuesday, October 5, 2021, at Bolsachka State Beach in Huntington Beach, where the recent marine oil spill occurred, surrounded by local, state, and State officials.
Mark Wrightmeier | Media Group | Orange County Register via Getty Images
Ozoma said that after more than a year of lobbying and organization, the “No More Silence Act” and her manual were published. Ozoma co-sponsored the bill and helped gain the support of thousands of people in the technology industry.
She said she used the skills she acquired in various public policy positions at Google, Facebook, and Pinterest.
“I learned how to work with policymakers, I learned how to lobby and interact with the media, which is an important part of it,” she said. “This is an interesting way to apply this knowledge, but now it applies to workers, not just my employer.”
Ozoma says she has worked with former colleagues from every employer in her past. Sometimes this means educating people who don’t have the same experience.
“Most people in the technology industry don’t know how the legislation works,” Ozoma said. “Holding a meeting with the senator’s office through Zoom and asking supporters to sit down and answer the hour-long phone call in order to have the opportunity to speak out that they support the bill is a painstaking process.”
‘Too much exposure to one person’
One person in Ozoma’s corner is Ariella Steinhorn, founder and CEO of Lioness, an organization that helps employees tell their allegations of misconduct. Lioness published an article in September written by 21 former and current Blue Origin employees who described the toxic work culture of a space company led by Jeff Bezos.
“We support and respect Ifeoma’s much-needed work in this field,” Steinhorn said.
Steinhorn added that she saw the influx of workers in the technology industry and asked how to share their stories externally after internal attempts failed.
“There must be something like this,” she said of Ozoma’s guide. “There is usually such a mismatch between reality and the company’s image. One person exposes himself too much.”
Ozoma now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she moved in 2020. Although she will not immediately experience the results of her work on the California Act, she is pushing the company’s executives and shareholders in their non-disclosure agreements.
David Barrett, CEO of Expensify, an expense management software startup, told Protocol that he agreed to include a sentence in the non-disclosure agreement stating that “Nothing in this agreement prevents you from discussing or disclosing information about illegal workplaces. Information about behavior, such as harassment or discrimination or any other behavior that you have reason to believe is illegal.”
Ozoma said she hopes the California bill will trigger similar actions in other states, especially when distributed labor becomes the norm.
Chelsea Glassen, who has worked at Google for five years, told CNBC that Ozoma’s efforts on the bill inspired her to engage with Washington state lawmakers. She said they seemed willing to accept a bill that might match.
After the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission launched an investigation into pregnancy discrimination complaints, Glasson filed a lawsuit against Google in July 2020. Her trial is scheduled for January.
Glason’s complaint led to the passage of a bill in the Washington State Senate to extend the statute of limitations for filing a pregnancy discrimination complaint from six months to one year.
She said Ozoma’s guidelines gave potential whistleblowers a sense of “community.”
Glason said: “I keep getting letters from many workers who suffer improper behavior and fear because they don’t know what to do.”
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