Dec. 12th, 2016

sparr: (cellular automata)
I'm not actively looking for a new job. However, in my industry, recruiters just keep calling/emailing, and it's good practice to occasionally follow through. Even if they don't convince me to jump ship, new job offers give me data to use when I'm negotiating a raise or promotion with my current employer.

A recruiter at Uber approached me. I went through a few phone interviews and then came on site for a full day with a bunch of people. It went well. They made me an offer, in the form of an "offer agreement letter", which they needed me to sign and send back within a few days to them to accept. In this case, the offer was actually enough to convince me, if everything else had worked out.

I brought up three potential concerns with the agreement, directly to the recruiter who then brought them to the attention of their legal dept and my supervisor-to-be.

"without express written permission from a senior leader of your organization, you shall not render services in any capacity to any other person or entity"

The obvious intent of this clause is to prevent moonlighting. I don't have other employment or business endeavors, but I do a lot of volunteer and open source work that are the kinds of things people often get paid for (IT, development, management, etc). I offered to make a list of those things for a "senior leader" to sign off on.

"you have returned all property and confidential information belonging to any prior employer"

I told them I couldn't sign this part until I had returned the laptop owned by my current employer, which would happen in about 3 weeks.

"you are under no obligations or commitments, whether contractual or otherwise, that are inconsistent with your obligations under this Agreement. In connection with your Employment, you shall not use or disclose any trade secrets or other proprietary information or intellectual property in which you or any other person has any right, title or interest and your Employment will not infringe or violate the rights of any other person."

This one was the doozie. If you've ever worked in tech, or even visited a few big tech companies' offices, you've probably been required to sign an "NDA" at some point. Half the time you can't even get into the building to attend a meetup without agreeing to contractual terms at the door on the little kiosk that prints your visitor nametag. (search your email for 'envoy "document you signed today"'; kudos to Envoy for making it easy to keep track of SOME of these!)

A significant number of these agreements have some requirement outside of simple non-disclosure. As it turns out, the year preceding this situation was a pretty boring year for me, and I wasn't interviewing for a lot of jobs, so I only had two contracts that gave me pause.

The first was from interviewing at a healthcare IT provider. That contract said, in not so few words, that if I discovered someone mishandling HIPAA-protected information while using their system, I had to inform them.

The second was with my then-current employer, where I am required to notify them if I come into possession of their confidential information through a channel they have not approved. If you've ever seen the movie "Coming to America", this clause would be relevant if a McDonald's employee later worked at McDowell's and was handed the McDonald's operations manual by a McDowell's employee who wasn't supposed to have it in the first place.

I told the recruiter I had a couple of outstanding contracts that might be relevant. He asked for them, and I sent them over. Their legal team had a powwow for about a week. I had a phone call with my supervisor-to-be and he asked me what I would do if I found myself in the exceptionally unlikely circumstance of one of those contractual conflicts arising. I told him that after talking to him I'd talk to the company's legal dept to get official guidance. He asked what I'd do if they wouldn't provide any. That question left me stunned, and I ventured a guess that I would seek independent legal counsel. I suspect now that that was the Wrong Answer.

I originally expected their response to be simple and straightforward. "Hold off on doing tech/dev volunteering until your supervisor signs off on it. We'll amend the agreement to say you've returned the laptop by the time you start here. The contracts you sent are totally standard and nothing to worry about regarding the conflict clause." Instead, at every juncture I got strong implicit and weak explicit direction to simply sign the paperwork and stop making a stink. Of course, at the same time, my recruiter was praising me for reading the documents and being honest.

A week after that call, I was told by my recruiter the job offer was being rescinded and we would "part ways", due to the company not wanting to "take the risk" of hiring me.

The punchline of this all is that at various points in the process I was told, first and secondhand by and through multiple people at the company, that I was the first person to ever bring these issues up. At a company with ~8000 employees, apparently not a single other person has ever mentioned any of this when signing their employment agreement. I am confident that most of them were in at least one of the three situations I described above (including some people I know have signed the exact same contracts, having interviewed or been employed at those same places), and I'd wager that many of them were in all three of them. None of these concerns seem outlandish at all to me.

I post this both to warn future Uber applicants to either bail out early or be prepared to lie as required on the documents, and to ask my friends what I should do in the future in these situations.

Should I be reconsidering how honest I am with people asking me to sign things like this? I've only lightly questioned this policy in my life in the past, but this time it cost me what was probably a few hundred thousand dollars, possibly much more. To be told that thousands of people in the same situation have lied on these documents and I am the only squeaky wheel is giving me significant pause.

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