Ethical Employment Contracts Instead of Ethical Licenses?

by Karen Sandler on December 17, 2020

Earlier in the year at Copyleft Conf, we had a few sessions dedicated to the Ethical License movement. During the conference, Coraline Ada Ehmke gave a moving talk outlining why technologists and software freedom activists in particular must act against atrocities, especially those committed using FOSS. I have long argued that technologists (and especially software freedom activists) should dedicate more care and resources to the ethical use of technology and eliminating discrimination and oppression that technology often enables. While I don't believe software licenses are the best way to accomplish this task, I've wondered since the conference what FOSS contributors can do to protect human rights.

The proposed licenses have been essential to starting these discussions, but the license changes themselves seem unlikely to work: they'd introduce nonfree provisions, introduce license uncertainty and on top of that, we know that companies that would commit atrocities will ignore licenses and act from judgement-proof jurisdictions. So the question is how best to influence the behavior of companies who can improve their human rights record and how to insulate employees who want to take action to assure that their companies do the right thing.

Through our ContractPatch[1] initiative, Conservancy has been working to educate developers about employment contracts. We plan to eventually draft suggested contract language to help developers negotiate their employment contracts. While ContractPatch has moved slower than I would have liked (due to our prioritization of other urgent work), the initiative has shared good information, primarily via our talks and blogposts. I've been gratified to hear from folks that they've actually been able to negotiate better terms into their employment agreements as a result! Some have told us that they've succeeded in retaining their FOSS copyrights. Others have simply negotiated a better salary, as ContractPatch information improved their negotiation skills generally.

In the context of human rights, where FOSS licenses are unlikely to achieve the desired result, perhaps contractual demands by developers can succeed. I propose here a simple “contract patch” that can more successfully leverage developers' power in the market to prevent human rights abuses due to software.

Employees of all sorts face a difficult dilemma upon discovering unethical practices at their company. If the activity is already in advanced stages and/or the profit amounts generated from the practice are high, the employee's predicament becomes even more precarious. Should they report it to their manager or their manager's manager? If those managers all know about the activity already, will a complaint even be taken seriously? Often, the employee will have signed documents upon employment committing them to confidentiality, so the employee has little choice except to decide whether to quit or not but otherwise remain silent. For matters that concern the safety and well being of human beings, the stakes are much higher. Yet, employees have even fewer choices to ameliorate the situation. While most companies have whistle blower policies, the fallout of corporate politics can leave employees powerless.

What if those employees knew exactly how to handle the situation? What if the steps to escalate this situation were spelled out in advance? What if the employee were truly assured non-retaliation for reporting the situation? What if the employee were guaranteed a soft landing if they felt they needed to quit their job when the company took no action? In other words, what if these details appeared in their employment agreement and the employee knew they could rely on it from day one of their employment?

Amending Employment Contracts

With this in mind, we can draft a clause for employment contracts. Should an employee come to know that the company is committing violations of human rights, their employment agreement can specify the ways they can raise attention to this matter. Perhaps they first report the violation to their manager. If there is no satisfactory response or repair of the situation within a certain period of time, then the employee is to report the violation their manager's manager. If again there is no satisfactory response or action, the employee is to report the violation to the head of the department. If in that instance there is again no satisfactory response or action, the employee may post the violation on an internal mailing list or posting board. If again no action is taken, the employee may choose to terminate their employment and receive a pre-agreed severance amount — similar to the “golden parachute” provisions that executives have in their contracts. The company would also promise no retaliation against the employee for reporting the violation, including a non-disparagement provision that prevents the company from speaking negatively about an employee who opts for the severance. Each company could tailor the reporting chain to match what would make the most sense with their corporate structure. Nothing in the provision would undermine the company's confidentiality provisions with the employee, but the employee would have confidence in raising an alarm and also be able to quit while having a cushion to be able to look for another job.

Like most ContractPatch proposals, these approaches works best when the clause becomes standard. Companies are more likely to agree to these terms if many developers who interview ask for it.

This is a relatively simple solution — a good set of ContractPatch terms and a collective bargaining demand around it — is an outcome that companies can actually accept when the terms are reasonable. It protects the company's confidentiality and incentivizes employees to bring to management's attention problematic practices that the companies should have an interest in knowing about. Additionally, while the company and employee may disagree about the human rights implications of a problematic behavior, the ultimate negative result of the provision's operations is that the employee leaves the company, with a small, pre-agreed and easily budgeted financial settlement. In the case the employee is simply wrong about the alleged human rights violation, a voluntary exit is an obvious benefit to both parties. However, if multiple employees exercise this contract clause, the company then has a strong incentive to cease the violations, both financially and operationally. Alone one employee may not effectuate change, but standing together employees can have a powerful voice. Adding contract provisions like this one work within the existing corporate structure but amplify the impact that employees can have.

While I've focused my example on human rights violations, the provision could also cover endangering public health and safety or substantially violating the law.

The ContractPatch

Employment contracts often have provisions where the employee represents that they will obey laws and act ethically in the position. Here's an example of this kind of language I've seen in a contract:

Employee will act in an honest and ethical manner in compliance with all applicable laws … and comply with the policies, procedures, requirements, rules, and regulations promulgated at any time and as amended or supplemented from time to time by Employer … including Employer’s policies on sexual harassment …

Employment agreements are already the correct venue for these expectations. We can build on provisions like this to introduce the one I'm proposing here. The language itself could look like this:

“Human Rights Laws”) is defined as the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and any other applicable laws protecting the rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status.

An “Unethical Action” is defined as an action by Company that violates Human Rights Laws, excluding actions Company has taken against the Employee individually.

An “Adequate Response” is defined as a written response that (a) explains why there has been no Unethical Action, or (b) provides notice that the Unethical Action has ceased.

A “Planning Response” is defined as a written response that sets forth a plan to cease the Unethical Action.

Company shall act in an honest and ethical manner in compliance with all Human Rights Laws.

In the case that Employee becomes aware of any Unethical Action, Employee will report such action to their manager in writing as soon as is reasonably practicable. If Employee's manager does not provide an Adequate Response or a Planning Response within two weeks, Employee will send the report to their [FIXME - manager's manager/department head]. If [FIXME-title] does not provide an Adequate Response or a Planning Response within two weeks, Employee may report the Unethical Action via [FIXME - whatever relevant internal company-wide dissemination makes sense, whether it be an email list, posting board] (“Company Notice&Rdquo;). Employee may also provide a Company Notice in the case that the Employee has received a Planning Response but no Adequate Response is received within the period set forth for repair in the Planning Response. If the Employee receives no Adequate Response or Planning Response to a Company Notice within two weeks, Employee may terminate their employment and receive an amount equal to the greater of (i) twelve (12) weeks severance pay or (ii) twice the amount required by any relevant applicable law or statute. Company will not retaliate, intimidate or harass any Employee who reports an Unethical Action. If Employee's employment is terminated for any reason after Employee first reported the Unethical Action, Employee shall receive an amount equal to twelve (12) weeks severance pay. Nothing in this provision contradicts, supersedes or diminishes Section [FIXME-CONFIDENTIALITY] of this agreement. However, if Employee terminates their employment pursuant to this provision, Company will not engage in any disparagement of the professional or personal life of the Employee.

This text is a first draft and edits and suggestions are welcome on the Contract Patch mailing list .

No software developer expects to encounter human rights violations or unlawful activity using software when they take a new job. But history shows that it will and does happen; Coraline's talk is an excellent list of known examples. Introducing new clauses into employment contracts is a practical way to align the interest of all parties, while providing simple mechanisms to raise attention to and end problematic behavior. Developers usually have more bargaining power than most workers. Let's use that to make sure we compel our employers to behave ethically and provide us the safety to stop providing them with our services if they don't!

[1] While I'm a lawyer and many of the people who have worked on ContractPatch are lawyers, Conservancy doesn't provide legal advice and so ContractPatch isn't meant as legal advice. Please use the language as a starting point or as an example for you to work on with your own lawyer to figure out what works for your situation.

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