Exposing the office gossip -- for a profit

  • Article by: WENDY LEE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 10, 2011 - 10:29 PM

St. Paul entrepreneur's website hosts employees' anonymous gripes. Employers can pay for access.

Terrible managers. Incompetent colleagues that get raises. Layoffs. Those complaints are usually whispered in conversations at the office, but now, St. Paul entrepreneur Ryan Masanz hopes to profit by putting them online.

His website, OfficeLeaks.com, lets employees post anonymous comments on their employers. Masanz lets companies monitor the comments for a fee but vows to never reveal employees' identities. The website has raised legal concerns, but Masanz said he believes Office Leaks will give employers an uncensored view of their business.

"I think great companies want to know honestly what employees think," Masanz said.

Office Leaks was inspired by Masanz's mom. She found out her firm was laying off workers in the weeks ahead but wasn't in a position to tell a colleague who was planning to buy a home, creating a moral dilemma.

Office Leaks hopes to ease that situation. Users enter their e-mail address to set up an anonymous account and choose a cartoon character to represent themselves on their company group. The address is later verified.

The site went up in April and so far has registered 468 users at 262 companies. Some of the posts are public, but others are locked, at the user's choice, allowing only the company's employees to see them. Some users' gripes might have been whispered at any water cooler, while others seem like insider rants.

"Why does that lazy butt in the next cube over get the same bump in pay that I get? It is so unfair," laments one Office Leaks user.

Another user wrote: "If dreams are made of Coca-Cola, our soda fountain spurts nightmares into the cups of the sugar-fed. Dispensed in addition to sweet treats, mold has shown up on more than one occasion!"

"First, you know who did not have the Excel file ready," said yet another user, "and then you know who passed the buck on that, which fell squarely in my lap. Why I oughta ..."

The legal issue

Some legal experts say the site may put employees at risk of losing their jobs if their identities are discovered. Issues that might arise include harassment or discrimination, said Sandra Jezierski, a partner in the law firm Nilan Johnson Lewis.

"The biggest problem is that it's a document," Jezierski said. "It makes very good evidence in litigation. It's pretty much indisputable if it's in writing or printed out."

But Masanz isn't worried about complying with subpoenas. He says the service doesn't retain information that could identify users except those who sign up for e-mail alerts.

"We're not changing things that are already happening," Masanz said. "People are gossiping today. It's a different venue. ... The thought is now documented, but the 'who done it' is not."

Masanz used to do IT work at various companies and it was common for employees to vent to him about the workplace. However, when it came to telling their bosses they would often "sugarcoat" their complaints.

"The meaning of the message can be lost when it is softened," Masanz said.

Masanz makes money by letting companies sponsor their group for $99 a month. A sponsorship allows employers to monitor postings in their group and respond to comments. The company can take down five posts a week but is advised to only do so if they violate Office Leaks' rules, Masanz said.

Office Leaks prohibits users from posting trade secrets or harassing comments. Masanz said he believes Office Leaks is as secure as a banking website, if not more. Each account file is encrypted and the information is accessible only with the user's password. If a user forgets the password, a new account must be created, he said. Masanz said he personally does not know the names of the employees posting.

Mixed interest by business

Abir Sen, CEO of Bloom Health, said he's interested in paying for sponsorship.

"I think it has a unique ability to provide employers an insight on what employees are thinking, which could be really valuable," Sen said.

Other companies, like Best Buy, don't have plans to sponsor the site. The retailer has its own internal online forum, "WaterCooler," that allows employees to post comments. Employees list their names when making a post, and critical thoughts aren't taken down, said spokeswoman Kelly Groehler.

Ross Willits, managing director of SteppingStone Theatre, said his 10-employee business doesn't have the money for such things.

"If I want to know what my employees are doing, I can talk to them. I can walk across the hall," Willits said. "It's not an issue for us."

So far, Masanz said he's been surprised by the number of flattering comments that users have posted on their employers.

"It's a lot more positive," Masanz said, adding his website is not just for brash complaints. "The question is, 'How was your day?' We're trying to keep that conversation going."

Wendy Lee • 612-673-1712

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