Being a tech whistleblower is dangerous and expensive. Now there’s a guide to the risks.
Worker advocate Ifeoma Ozoma launched her guide today to helping tech workers calculate the risks of going public with stories that hold tech companies to account.
This week, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen revealed herself to the world through a detailed and carefully executed rollout planned by a whistleblower agency. Now, there's quite literally a website to help other tech workers — whether they work in retail, the C-suite or somewhere in between — decide for themselves whether they want to do the same.
On Wednesday morning, Pinterest whistleblower Ifeoma Ozoma, alongside whistleblower support agencies including Lioness, the Signals Network, Elite Strategy Global and the Whistleblowing International Network, launched a website intended to serve as a guide to helping workers across the tech industry decide if they want to speak publicly about an issue or story, and, if they do, plan strategies like Haugen's. The site details the cost-benefit calculations a worker has to make when thinking about reporting or leaking information, the places to seek legal, emotional and media support, ways to protect from retaliation and other information someone might need to calculate the potentially life-altering risk of speaking publicly about a company or its actions. While the work was supported and funded by the Omidyar Network (a "philanthropic" investment firm), Ozoma was quick to stress that the site is hosted and managed independently by her (for tech workers who might be skeptical about the guide's true intentions).
The handbook is the brainchild of Ozoma, who became a household name in the tech world after she and Aerica Shimizu Banks, then employees of Pinterest, spoke publicly about their experiences of racial and gender-based discrimination and harassment at the company. Since departing Pinterest, Ozoma has become an activist fighting for workers' ability to speak freely about their experiences at tech companies. In California, she helped craft a bill that would prohibit companies from forcing workers to sign non-disclosure agreements that could prevent them from speaking up about harassment or discrimination. Known as the Silenced No More Act, the bill has passed both California chambers and now awaits Gov. Gavin Newsom's signature, though he has not said whether he plans to sign it.
"This is not a 'how to.' You cannot tell anyone how to potentially ruin their lives. That is not something that is responsible. That is not something I would ever do," Ozoma said about the new handbook. "It's not the sort of thing that you would ever tell someone how to do. Preparedness is power. It doesn't mean that shit won't be terrible."
Ozoma, Banks and countless other whistleblowers who came before Haugen have always had to make a careful calculation about the risk posed to their jobs, reputations and financial futures. Not only do whistleblowers risk being blacklisted by their former employer and the tech industry as a whole, they could also face lawsuits (if they break an NDA, for example) or reputational career issues that extend far beyond the sector they work in. The playbook behind Haugen's careful reveal to the world is clearly informed by that reality. And Ozoma has always described herself as relatively privileged by her financial savings and relationships, all of which provided a certain degree of safety for her future that many workers may lack.
The handbook's launch wasn't planned around Haugen's public reveal and congressional testimony. "The timing of this was random," Ozoma said. "I thought, middle of the week tends to be okay for launching things, why don't we do Wednesday?" But the media storm around Haugen — and her clear level of preparedness, ranging from her comfort with the press to her filing complaints with the SEC — has become an accidental living testament to the value of the guide.
The handbook itself has sections written by different organizations in the whistleblowing space, explaining processes, terms and risks, including, but not limited to: how to talk with reporters, how to think about telling a story, legal resources for whistleblowers, the potential for legal repercussions, the security risks of leaking fundamental documents and how to contact government agencies to report issues or seek a federal or state investigation.
Ariella Steinhorn and Amber Scorah, the CEO and president of Lioness respectively, wrote the section of the guide for talking to the media. They see their work as helping people understand how journalists operate, and how to best tell personal stories in a way that resonates with a larger message. "We're helping people understand how to tell their story. It doesn't mean they don't have a valid story," Steinhorn said. "We're explaining what the before, during and after process of bringing a story to the media looks like."
"There is something there too, in the sense that a whistleblower is an isolated individual. This guidebook and the other organizations involved almost become a team that surrounds the whistleblower so that they aren't alone," Scorah said.
Scorah and Stienhorn hope that their section of the guide will act both as a self-serve document and a declaration that anyone who wants support can reach out to Lioness. "We listen to stories sometimes all day long. You end up hearing a lot, and trends emerge, and you start to see a bigger picture of something you know you could get media interest in," Steinhorn said. "Sometimes there is a trend, a larger, clearly emerging picture of a problem that could be something."
To Ozoma, the creation of the handbook is the beginning of an iterative process, not a guide or a how-to stuck in time. "It's not perfect. I don't agree with every single thing that the experts put in it, but you want as much information as possible so you can make the right decision," she said. "I would love it if folks in the tech industry did their own thing, or added thoughts on what they want. This is really something that I want to be built upon. It's not the final say on anything at all. It's really hard to do something like this. We did it so that it's easier the next time."