A writer who wishes to remain anonymous considers the ethical implications of the NDA
A tingling sensation came over me as he dangled the carrot – two years’ salary in return for a quiet exit from the Christian charity I had served for 20 years.
The chair of the Board had listened intently and without judgement as I described the experiences of the previous months: the mismanagement of a safeguarding issue by directors, the jeopardising of the health and safety of staff and the bullying I’d witnessed. He was compassionate and unhurried. This was a man I knew and respected and it was a relief to finally feel heard. I grew in confidence that there would be a desire for seeking truth, restoring broken relationships and, where appropriate, holding people to account.
As he summarised our conversation, however, he dismissed the idea of an investigation into my allegations, claiming it would be too difficult to verify the truth. While not refuting my account, he hinted at previously unmentioned “counter-narratives” and drew my attention to how traumatic grievance and employment tribunal processes can be. That’s when he proposed the alternative. I would receive a large payment from the charity on condition that I leave quietly by signing a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). I would be required to trust the Board chair to address any issues as he saw fit and destroy any evidence that might support my case.
He underlined repeatedly that it was my choice – but, in reality, there was no real choice. Even in my exhaustion and depression, after months of sleep deprivation and stress brought about by standing up for what I believed was right, I knew that what I was being offered flew in the face of the Christian values held deeply by both of us. While I could console myself with the fact that I had done the right thing by bringing my concerns to the chair, I felt deeply conflicted by being asked to choose between financially providing for my family or pursuing truth and justice. On the advice of my Christian lawyer, who told me I was being offered double what he could achieve in court, I signed the settlement contract and received the payment. That was in 2018. To this day I am legally gagged from telling you exactly what took place while I worked for that charity.
The rise of the NDA
While the secretive nature of NDAs makes research difficult, their use is widespread and growing. I am aware of at least five other colleagues at the same Christian charity who have either signed, or been asked to sign NDAs relating to abuse of power allegations. And this is not an isolated example. We already know of the use of non-disclosure agreements at various evangelical churches, including Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill and Bill Hybels’ Willow Creek. According to Christianity Today the five people who first reported Sheffield-based pastor Steve Timmis to Acts 29 for allegedly “bullying” behaviour were fired and asked to sign NDAs as a condition of their severence packages.
While it may be difficult to understand why Christians would resort to NDAs, there are two key concepts from social psychology that it’s helpful to have in mind when exploring why NDAs are employed. The first is cognitive dissonance. When a person engages in an action that conflicts with one or more of their deeply held beliefs, ideas or values, psychological stress may result. According to the theory of cognitive dissonance, that person will do everything in their power to change the circumstances until that feeling of distress is alleviated. In their book, Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) (Mariner Books), Tavris and Aronson explain it like this: “Most people, when directly confronted by evidence that they are wrong, do not change their point of view or course of action but justify it even more tenaciously. Yet mindless self-justification, like quicksand, can draw us deeper into disaster. It blocks our ability to even see our errors, let alone correct them. It keeps many professionals from changing outdated attitudes and procedures that can be harmful to the public.”
The second concept is groupthink, which occurs when a coterie of well-intentioned people make irrational or even dysfunctional decisions, driven by the urge to conform or the discouragement of dissent. This causes the group to minimise conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation. Groupthink requires individuals to avoid raising controversial issues or alternative solutions; to suppress individual creativity and independent thinking. In the interests of making a decision that furthers their group cause, ethical or moral consequences may be ignored.
With these concepts in mind, if a reputational damage crisis is not handled correctly early on, it becomes harder to manage as it is escalated up the chain of command. Each progression requires more courageous leadership to address the problem, while the risk of damaging fallout increases. In ‘values-based’ organisations such as Christian charities, public image is crucial, both for legitimacy and for fundraising. When faced with a crisis that threatens its reputation, organisations often seem to prioritise managing image over managing the problem. While guarding an organisation’s reputation is part of the Board’s role, the temptation to protect public perception over the wellbeing of employees and stakeholders can have detrimental effects for everyone.
Misuse and abuse
NDAs have their origins in protecting proprietary information or trade secrets, but they have, in more recent years, been used to protect a wider range of sensitive information, notably employment issues, including disputes. I believe the original purpose remains legitimate – although I suspect there is almost no circumstance where this would be applicable in a Christian organisation or church.
NDAs rely on intimidation – if an employee breaks an NDA by speaking out, they risk not just any settlement payment, but the costs of legal fees and, potentially, damages.
Typically, I hear two dominant responses to the use of NDAs in Christian organisations. The most prevalent is one of shock and incredulity – a visceral gut reaction that imposing a secrecy agreement in return for money is wrong and cannot be justified. Others, however, cite pragmatism and a need to deal with the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. Pragmatists argue that NDAs draw a line under complex and unprovable situations, enabling healing and reconciliation processes to begin, as well as providing an efficient solution to protect the reputation of an organisation from vexatious allegations. These arguments accentuate the benefits to the organisation at the expense of the employee.
A June 2019 Women and Equality Select Committee, which reported on the use of non-disclosure agreements in discrimination cases, concluded: “We received evidence from those who, after signing an NDA found it difficult to work in the same sector again. Some suffer emotional an psychological damage as a result of their experiences, which can affect their ability to work again or to move on. Some also suffer financially as a result of losing their job and bringing a case against their employer.”
The same report highlighted the power dynamics at play in these situations: “The difficulties of pursuing a case at employment tribunal and the substantial imbalance of power between employers and employees, mean that employees can feel they have little choice but to reach a settlement that prohibits them speaking out.”
Despite the belief that NDAs are good for organisations, I would argue that in fact they damage them and increase the risk of abuse in the future. By enforcing confidentiality and introducing a sense of legal intimidation, NDAs prevent organisational learning, undermine transparency and accountability and they discourage the restoration of relationships. The requirement often found in NDAs to destroy records means that malpractice cannot be investigated, nor are there reference documents if there is another similar incident at a later stage. This allows bad practice to be perpetuated, which is especially serious if the wrongdoing is criminal. This was a key problem arising from the Harvey Weinstein case, where collusion in secrecy by numerous people over many years resulted in more women being abused.
Breaking an NDA
As public interest grows in the corrosive misuse of NDAs, we are learning how extensively they are employed by organisations. In the last year the media has reported on their use to cover up abuse in businesses, churches, universities, charities, journalism and the House of Commons.
We are also witnessing a number of high-profile cases where people have intentionally and courageously broken their NDAs. Notably, this includes the Labour MPs who blew the whistle on antisemitism in the party and Zelda Perkins who broke her NDA of nearly two decades to shed light on Weinstein’s abuse. Which leads to the question – should a Christian who has signed an NDA ever break it?
Law professor Scott Altman argues compellingly that victims of abuse have a right to silence to avoid trauma and discrimination– but that if they accept money for silence, they breach their duty to disclose and become complicit in the abuser’s subsequent wrongdoing. As the trauma of the abusive event recedes and if the organisation refuses to address the allegations raised, itis my belief that Christians should prioritise seeking truth, justice and reconciliation over observing a coercive contract that may well not be legally enforceable. By challenging the use of a tool of intimidation, abuse can be brought to light and vulnerable people protected. But it is a journey, not an event, and the fear of breaking an NDA is palpable.
For me, breaking my NDA in private, with trusted friends, carried less risk than doing it publicly, but lessened the crushing feeling of silence and isolation. Being clear on my motives and making disclosures to appropriate authorities as a next step is a respectful and responsible way to pursue truth and justice. I know Imay need to make a public disclosure, possibly in the media, as the only way to reveal the abuses I witnessed – and it is my firm conviction that this is a legitimate option in my case.
The truth will set you free
I believe that NDAs suppress and hide the truth, binding and capturing those involved. By contrast, in John 8:32, Jesus teaches that the truth sets us free. Christian organisations that use NDAs rely on a selective interpretation of scripture and overlook basic concepts of justice and restoration. Using an NDA to cover up misconduct is unethical, damages both the organisation and the employee, and contradicts basic Christian theology. I believe a Christian organisation should never handle disputes in this way. It involves the payment of money so that wrongdoing can go unaddressed and it denies justice (see Isaiah 5:23).
Christian organisations must prioritise a process of robust and safe reporting (including whistleblowing) and they must ensure the protection of human dignity, independent investigation, transparency and accountability. It will require courageous and honest leadership, as well as deep trust in our loving Father to help us through the inevitable challenges and conflicts that entail in all human relationships. But when we handle conflict like this, our reputation for integrity grows and our light shines in the darkness
Rob (not his real name) is a post-graduate student in social justice. He is passionate about Christian activism, healthy theology and flourishing organisations