“Genuinely embarrassed” | Sam Altman apologizes after learning strict OpenAI NDAs threatened to claw back employee equity

Sam Altman apologizes after learning strict OpenAI NDAs threatened to claw back employee equity

OpenAI CEO Sam Altman has said he is “genuinely embarrassed” after the exit of two high-profile safety researchers revealed clauses in non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements (NDAs) that could have cost workers vested equity if they criticized the company.

Following the departure of Co-founder and former Chief Scientist, Ilya Sutskever, and Superalignment Co-lead Jan Leike, Vox News reported that the lack of communication from the two ex-employees on their resignation was due to the existence of such contracts.

Sam Altman, responding to the news, revealed he did not know the policy existed, but confirmed the report from Vox was legitimate – though added it has never been used, writing on X that OpenAI has never "clawed back anyone's vested equity.”

"This is on me and one of the few times i've been genuinely embarrassed running openai; i did not know this was happening and i should have," Altman stated.

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He also confirmed that the company would strike the policy from the paperwork that employees who depart from OpenAI must sign.

“If any former employee who signed one of those old agreements is worried about it, they can contact me and we’ll fix that too. very sorry about this,” the statement concluded.

According to Vox’s report, the agreement not only banned former employees from criticizing OpenAI, but even from acknowledging the NDA existed.

NDAs are fairly standard practice among Silicon Valley tech companies, but the stipulation that an employee’s already-vested equity could be clawed back for refusing to comply with the contract was enough to raise several eyebrows.

The possible value of equity is a huge upsell for candidates choosing to join start-ups and why many view working for such a company as a high-risk but high-reward opportunity.

Despite not returning an initial request for comment, an OpenAI spokesperson later confirmed Altman’s statement, stating the company has “never canceled any current or former employee’s vested equity nor will we if people do not sign a release or nondisparagement agreement when they exit.”

Sutskever and Leike had previously been quiet about their departure from the AI tech firm on Tuesday.

However, on Friday, Leike criticized OpenAI, claiming he left because “safety culture and processes have taken a backseat to shiny products.”

Some have speculated that Sutskever, a member of OpenAI’s board, was uncertain on his future after an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to remove Altman from the C-suite.

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