Respect Equality

What’s up with Bloomberg’s NDAs — and how problematic are they for women’s equality?

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Story at a glance

  • Last night marked the first Democratic debate for presidential hopeful Michael Bloomberg.
  • Bloomberg was grilled by his opponents on policies and practices of his past, including “stop-and-frisk” and nondisclosure agreements.
  • Nondisclosure agreements, or NDAs, are common business practice but can also be used by those in power to silence an individual for reasons such as sexual misconduct in the workplace.
  • Bloomberg has NDAs with a currently unknown number of former employees, including women. He has been vague while answering questions about the agreements in question.

Last night was perhaps the most contentious Democratic debate yet, no doubt fueled by the former mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg taking the stage for the very first time. The general consensus is that Bloomberg, a billionaire and CEO of Bloomberg L.P., was skewered by his opponents and often struggled to come up with satisfactory answers.

Among them was a controversial “stop-and-frisk” crime prevention strategy that Bloomberg had instituted during his mayoral tenure from 2002 to 2013. The street-stop program involved police officers stopping and questioning people they believed to be engaged in criminal activity on the street, and whose practices its critics strongly believed to be racist. Bloomberg has since apologized for his support of the program, continually emphasizing its goal to save lives and admitting that “too many innocent people were being stopped.” 

Bloomberg was also heavily questioned on the debate floor about the multiple nondisclosure agreements (NDA) his employees have signed over the years, but on this topic the former mayor offered no apologies and gave vague answers, which led to groans from the audience. 

“I’d like to talk about who we’re running against: a billionaire who calls women ‘fat broads’ and ‘horse-faced lesbians,’” began Senator Elizabeth Warren. “And no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump, I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg.”

“He has gotten some number of women — dozens, who knows — to sign nondisclosure agreements, both for sexual harassment and for gender discrimination in the workplace,” Warren continued, referring to Bloomberg’s namesake financial services company. “So, Mr. Mayor, are you willing to release all of those women from those nondisclosure agreements so we can hear their side of the story?”

“None of them accuse me of doing anything other than maybe they didn’t like a joke I told,” Bloomberg said in response. But, what exactly are these NDAs, and why should we be worried about them?

First of all, let’s get down what an NDA is. By the book a nondisclosure agreement is “a legally enforceable contract that creates a confidential relationship between a person who holds some kind of trade secret and a person to whom the secret will be disclosed.”

So let’s say you’re going in for a job interview at a highly secretive company or taking on a big name new client — you might be asked to sign an NDA to make sure that if anything goes wrong with the relationship you won’t leak their private information.

NDAs are common to see (and be asked to sign) in a business setting, but they can also present themselves as an easy way for a person in a seat of power to legally bind someone to silence for less than kosher reasons, including cases of sexual harassment that they’d prefer to see swept under the rug. 

Before the #MeToo movement swept the nation in 2017, in which women around the country came forward to name their abusers, several states already had “sunshine in litigation” laws in place. States including Florida, Washington and Louisiana used these laws to prohibit confidentiality provisions if they concealed “public hazards,” or dangers to general health or safety. Following #MeToo, states like New York and California have proposed new legislation prohibiting confidentiality provisions in contracts that have the purpose or effect of concealing discrimination or harassment.

In the case of Bloomberg, the businessman and politician first came under fire for a booklet that was circulated much before #MeToo, in the 1990s. The booklet documented sexist and offensive comments he was alleged to have made to and about women who worked for him. One of the most high-profile lawsuits brought against Bloomberg involved a woman accusing him of telling her to “kill it” upon learning that she was pregnant. Bloomberg reached a confidentiality agreement with the woman.

When asked for clarity both on and off the debate stage surrounding said NDAs Bloomberg has replied the same way. “You can’t just walk away from it,” he said. “They’re legal agreements, and for all I know the other side wouldn’t want to get out of it.”

But, his reasoning doesn’t exactly add up, considering multiple women have reportedly told ABC News that they were interested in sharing their stories about working for Bloomberg for the public to hear. They have not been able to due to the bounds of their confidentiality agreements, as well as a fear of retaliation if they were to speak out.

“If Mr. Bloomberg is running for president, I think the public needs to know what actually happened in this business,” said Bonnie Josephs to ABC News, a lawyer whose former client had filed a lawsuit against Bloomberg’s company in the 1990s. Her former client accused Bloomberg of making sexually explicit and derogatory statements to and about women in the workplace.

Were he to win the Democratic nomination, Bloomberg would be facing up against currently sitting President Trump, who has been involved in a number of his own sexual harassment scandals.