Many unpaid Capitol Hill interns are expected to sign sweeping nondisclosure agreements, and these documents could be contributing to a workplace culture that protects abusers and punishes victims.
In a Vox exclusive, four employment lawyers looked over two different intern NDAs they obtained from a Democratic House office and a Democratic Senate office. While the lawyers said that parts of the agreements looked pretty run-of-the-mill, they expressed concern that the language in the NDAs didn’t make clear exceptions for discrimination, harassment, or abuse.
One NDA is written as follows:
I understand that as an intern in the Office [redacted] I may have access to sensitive and/or confidential information, including, but not limited to, information designated as confidential or secret by the government, matters involving the personal or professional lives of the Senator or employees of the Office, information about the personal lives of constituents, internal legislative strategy, and internal operations of the Office. I understand that the disclosure of such sensitive and/or confidential information outside the Office could breach my duties as an employee of the Office. Accordingly, I represent and warrant that during my employment with the Office I will not disclose such sensitive and/or confidential information outside of the office unless I am required by my supervisor to do so as part of my duties as an intern of the Office. Further, I represent and warrant that I will not take or use such sensitive and/or confidential information for personal gain or advantage or take any action that would create a conflict of interest both during and following employment with the office.
In a culture where speaking out is often derided as an act of personal gain, one can imagine that an unpaid congressional intern—new to the workforce and anxious about the position—might interpret this language to mean they should stay silent about anything that happens while on the job.
“[Interns] are going to read it and think, ‘I can’t say anything to anyone or I’m going to be sued,’” Alexis Ronickher, an employment lawyer at Washington, D.C.-based law firm Katz, Marshall & Banks, told Vox.
Vox interviewed 20 current and former Capitol Hill interns who said that they signed NDAs during their tenure working under Democratic and Republican politicians. Even Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand—who is working on a #MeToo influenced bill that would give interns more power to combat harassment and file complaints—requires the use of NDAs. An aide for the New York Democrat told Vox that their office’s use of an NDA is “standard practice.”
In a comment to Jezebel, a spokesperson for the senator’s office wrote: “Senator Gillibrand is fighting hard to reform the broken system for how Congress handles sexual harassment complaints so that every person is treated with respect and dignity, and that means creating a climate where there is accountability, fairness, respect, and access to justice when sexual harassment takes place.”
NDAs themselves aren’t necessarily the problem, but the lack of language delineating the difference between leaking a policy proposal and calling out your boss for sexual harassment certainly is. An anecdote that a former Hill intern shared with Vox is precisely the sort of situation that a vague NDA can exploit:
A woman who interned on the Hill this past summer, when she was 21 years old, showed Vox text messages she received from one of her superiors asking what she and her fellow interns were up to. He eventually began inviting her to his house alone. His escalating communications made her uncomfortable, but she decided it was better not to say anything for fear of professional repercussions.
She didn’t attribute her silence to the NDA, but told Vox that, looking back on the situation, it was clear that the confidentiality agreement was part of a culture of silence. “Nondisclosure agreements are about following the rules,” she said, “and not rocking the boat is about following the rules.”
Mix one part ambitious 20-somethings, one part predatory politicians, and a dash of legal illiteracy, and you’ve got an entire town that operates on keeping hush hush, no matter what’s at stake.