If you’re a contractor–or sometimes even an employee–you’ll have to sign a non-disclosure agreement (usually called an “NDA”). This post will work through some of the reasons for an NDA and how they affect you as a technical communicator.
What It Is
As the description implies, the NDA is a document you sign agreeing not to disclose certain aspects of the work you’re doing. Most likely, the types of things you’re agreeing not to disclose to third parties are:
- Proprietary. Proprietary information could include company trade secrets, design details or drawings, pricing structure, sales practices, profit margins, future business plans, and competitive strategy.
- Classified. This should seem obvious, but if you are working with content classified in some way by the government, you should NOT be disclosing it to unauthorized persons. The government will classify (or treat as Sensitive But Unclassified/SBU) information that it would prefer not be shared with the general public or, more specifically, other nations for purposes of national defense, security, or other reasons.
Why You Sign It
An NDA is a legally binding document that demonstrates, in writing, you agree to abide by the company’s rules for disclosing proprietary information. It will go into your personnel file and be held for as long as you are employed by them, plus a certain number of years after that. If you do sign it, the NDA will spell out exactly how you are permitted (or not) to use or share their information.
For example, if you’re working on a proposal, you might not be able to tell another subcontractor the identities of the other subcontractors. You also might not be able to share what you’re working on within the same company. If a person not in your immediate task group asks about something you’re doing and you are not certain you can share the information, your default responses should be: 1) No, I can’t do that: and 2) If they really need to know the information, ask or refer them to your immediate customer/supervisor.
It will also spell out what sort of actions you can expect the company to take if you violate the NDA, including disciplinary action, suspension, termination, and/or legal action.
If you refuse to sign the document, you will not be allowed to do the work you got hired to do. You do want to work, don’t you?
Generally, businesses in the science and technology fields will have you sign an NDA, though other industries can require them too. Any time you’re handling a company’s internal information (see above), they will want your signature on an NDA, so it’s in your best interests to sign it and abide by its rules and terms. It demonstrates your trustworthiness and saves you a lot of aggravation in the long run.
Every employer I’ve worked for has required an NDA. The problem is when it comes to presenting a portfolio or writing samples for future employers, as your work can’t be used. I’ve gone so far as to use a manual with all the product and company names blacked out. It’s a huge distraction, but I haven’t found another solution.
Yep, that’s a challenge.