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How the World Learns About Bosses Behaving Badly
One firm is guiding employees through the process of going public with stories that companies go to great lengths to keep private.
Ariella Steinhorn, left, and Amber Scorah, of Lioness.Credit...Gili Benita for The New York Times
By Erin Griffith
June 5, 2021Updated 10:34 a.m. ET
The last thing Debbie Kosta wanted was to talk to a reporter. The past year had already upended her life, with the coronavirus putting her in a coma for nearly a month. When she tried to ease back into her job as a saleswoman at Robbins Research International, the company run by the motivational speaker Tony Robbins, she said she found that the company had locked her out of its systems.
Providing the details of what had happened to a lawyer in the discrimination suit she filed was terrifying enough, she said. She didn’t want to do it again with a journalist.
But as Mr. Robbins’s lawyers fought her claims, which a spokeswoman for Mr. Robbins has called “ridiculous and baseless,” Ms. Kosta was concerned that she would be outmatched by power and money. Her lawyer suggested she employ another asset: telling people her story. He connected her with Ariella Steinhorn and Amber Scorah, public relations executives whose firm, Lioness, had carved out a specialty helping people navigate the process of speaking out against workplace mistreatment.
Ms. Steinhorn assured Ms. Kosta that she was not alone and that her story should be heard. “She wanted to hear my heart,” Ms. Kosta said, “not just what happened.”
The pair helped arrange a story about Ms. Kosta’s situation in The Verge ; it was picked up by Insider, NBC, The New York Times and a variety of other outlets. The outpouring of support from people who read the coverage and were in similar situations provided Ms. Kosta with a measure of validation after her harrowing year.
“I was thinking maybe it was just me,” she said. Everyone else was like, “‘No, no, no.’”
In the whisper networks of corporate America, people pass around the names of colleagues to avoid — sexists, racists, creeps, toxic bosses. But lately, they’ve also been passing around the names of Ms. Steinhorn and Ms. Scorah.
“We think of ourselves as an intake and conduit for them to know how to tell their story,” Ms. Scorah said. “That doesn’t come naturally to everyone.”
When an individual contacts Lioness, the pair typically vets and corroborates the story, identifying which parts would be of interest to the media. They work with a law firm that reviews nondisclosure agreements free. The pair then makes connections to reporters, explains how talking to the press works, checks facts and follows up.
It’s the kind of behind-the-scenes media guidance that high-powered executives rely on but that others rarely see. Ms. Steinhorn and Ms. Scorah are, essentially, midwifing stories of discrimination, harassment, fraud and mistreatment into the world. As more industries employ nondisclosure agreements as a matter of course, more workers find themselves seeking professional help when they want to speak up about their experiences.
Ms. Steinhorn said she thinks storytelling is a powerful tool in the fight for justice. “We’ve noticed that stories change hearts,” she said. “It’s much more effective than the legal case, in a way.”
“People are suddenly willing to take huge personal risks to topple power structures,” Ms. Steinhorn said.Credit...Gili Benita for The New York Times
Since starting in late 2019, Lioness has worked with more than 100 individuals and arranged around a dozen stories, including one in Fortune about racism at the start-up Glossier , one in Business Insider about kids gambling on video game platforms and one in Forbes about a culture at the start-up Better.com that workers found toxic. They also helped people who had never been in the media write essays about their experiences, which ran in Fast Company, Fortune and The New York Times.
The firm’s services are free for people speaking out, which Lioness supports by doing paid public relations work for nonprofits and companies. (One client, an app called Helpr, is pushing for legislation in California that would require companies of a certain size to provide backup child care to workers, for example.)
One key element of their work is preparing people for what might happen after they go public. Many don’t fully understand the kind of backlash they can get when they speak out online, Ms. Steinhorn said. There’s also a chance of legal action from companies over nondisclosure or nondisparagement agreements.
But the pair said the momentum behind #MeToo, Black Lives Matter and today’s labor movements has made people feel more empowered to risk their jobs and reputations to push for change.
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The pandemic has further motivated people to call out injustices, Ms. Steinhorn said. “People are suddenly willing to take huge personal risks to topple power structures.”
Ms. Scorah saw the need for an agency like Lioness in 2015, after her infant son, Karl, died on his first day at day care. In her grief, she sought out people with similar stories and connected their experiences to the country’s lack of paid leave for new parents. She wrote an article that vividly described her experience and advocated better policies. Her lawyer advised against publishing it, she said.
The story went viral after it was published in The Times, sparking a national conversation around the issue of paid leave, and Ms. Scorah found herself at the center of a media frenzy after a personal tragedy. It wasn’t easy, and she said she could have used help navigating the attention.
Ms. Steinhorn had worked in public relations at Uber and other start-ups, witnessing misrepresentations and bad behaviors that she said were kept out of the public with secret settlements. It got her interested in employment law, with a desire to expand the resources available to workers.
“I heard so many stories, and many of those stories were signed away,” she said. “Some people never wanted to talk about them again, but others did and had this gnawing feeling.’”
The two women formed Lioness in 2019 after Ms. Scorah responded to an ad Ms. Steinhorn posted on LinkedIn. The first story they worked on was a Forbes investigation that outlined claims of fraud, founder infighting and toxic executive behavior at Better.com, a $4 billion mortgage start-up that LinkedIn named its top start-up of 2020. Lioness connected the Forbes reporters with many of the 19 current and former employees interviewed in the story, who anonymously shared background information and documents. It’s how the sausage is made for articles like this; now everyone gets to make it.
People who worked with Lioness said they wouldn’t have participated without the firm’s guidance. Lawyers and reporters aggressively stress-test every detail of the situation with probing questions. Ms. Steinhorn helped the workers get comfortable with the situation and focus on the most relevant parts of their stories.
As word of Lioness spread, particularly around Ms. Steinhorn’s network of tech workers, almost all of the firm’s incoming clients had the same concern: Would they be sued for breaking their nondisclosure agreements?
Such agreements were created by companies to protect valuable trade secrets, but they’re also wielded as tools to keep employees from talking publicly about bad experiences at work. Nondisclosure agreements and “mutual nondisparagement agreements” are most commonly applied in secret settlements after an employee has reported harassment, assault or discrimination.
To help people navigate the legal risks, Ms. Steinhorn created a partnership with Vincent White, a lawyer focused on workplace harassment.
Mr. White said Lioness has brought him enough agreements “to keep eight lawyers busy.” He does an initial review free; roughly 10 percent of those who interview end up pursuing a case with Mr. White’s firm.
Generally, Mr. White said, the businesses involved know it will reflect badly on them to sue employees who speak up about poor treatment. And there is some legal protection for people who claim sexual misconduct in New York and California, thanks to laws passed in the wake of the #MeToo movement. In California, a bill proposed for the first time this year, called the Silenced No More Act, would extend that to include all forms of discrimination and harassment. It was spearheaded in part by Ifeoma Ozoma, a Pinterest employee who broke her NDA to speak out about gender and racial discrimination she experienced at the company.
Mr. White said that, alongside the new laws, companies have made their nondisclosure agreements stricter and more complicated in recent years. “It’s an arms race,” he said. “They’ve been building this toolbox for as long as we have.”
Earlier this year, the actress Miriam Shor found herself deep in an internet research rabbit hole when she landed on an article about nondisclosure agreements on the tech news site The Information. The article was written by Ms. Steinhorn.
Ms. Shor, who has appeared in the TV show “Younger,” was struck by Ms. Steinhorn’s use of the word “storytelling”— something Ms. Shor does for entertainment — as a form of activism and a tool for change.
“People are able to tell their stories more and more without the gatekeeper’s permission,” Ms. Shor said. “That was powerful.”
She emailed Ms. Steinhorn and they began making plans to work together on a documentary about NDAs, as well as other potential content projects. Ms. Shor said she was eager to lend her skills as an actor, writer and director to Lioness’s menu of legal, media and editorial offerings.
“I just wanted to be a part of it,” Ms. Shor said. “When something comes along that makes so much sense to you, you think, ‘Why aren’t there a million versions of this?’”