OpenAI walks back restrictions in employee exit contracts

After a significant outcry, OpenAI, the startup behind ChatGPT, has confirmed that it’s now releasing the majority of past employees from restrictive nondisparagement agreements tied to their exit contracts and equity.

According to Bloomberg, the first outlet to report it, the company sent a message to former employees on Thursday and said it would not attempt to cancel their equity if or when they spoke out about their experiences at the firm.

“Regardless of whether you executed the agreement, we write to notify you that OpenAI has not canceled, and will not cancel, any vested units,” said the message.

OpenAI employees have reportedly been asking questions about a Vox report last weekend that said that some staffers were asked to sign unusually restrictive nondisparagement and nondisclosure agreements.

The provisions allegedly forbid workers – forever – from criticizing OpenAI. Such agreements are not unusual in Silicon Valley. However, in this case, they said that employees who violated them would lose all vested equity they earned during their time at the firm – possibly up to millions of dollars.

This was confirmed by one former OpenAI employee, Daniel Kokotajlo, who said he had to surrender a huge sum of money in order to quit without signing the document.

Sam Altman, OpenAI’s CEO, apologized and confirmed in a tweet on Saturday evening that such a provision did exist but said: “We have never clawed back anyone's vested equity, nor will we do that if people do not sign a separation agreement (or don't agree to a non-disparagement agreement).”

Now, OpenAI has moved quickly. It has removed the language tying equity to nondisparagement agreements from its exit paperwork for outgoing employees and released former employees from them as well.

“We are sorry for the distress this has caused great people who have worked hard for us,” chief strategy officer Jason Kwon said in a statement sent to Bloomberg.

However, Vox has again reported the whole kerfuffle wasn’t just a simple misunderstanding, and Altman – who, remember, was the subject of a coup attempt at the company last year – certainly knew about the controversial provisions.

According to records provided to Vox by OpenAI’s ex-employees, documents giving the company “near-arbitrary” authority to claw back equity from former staffers were signed in April 2023 by Altman himself.

Last week, Ilya Sutskever and Jan Leike, scientists who worked at OpenAI’s superalignment team, both resigned, and Leike soon wrote on X: “OpenAI is shouldering an enormous responsibility on behalf of all of humanity. But over the past years, safety culture and processes have taken a backseat to shiny products.”