What HR Should Know About Anonymous Gossip App Memo

By Aliah D. Wright Jan 26, 2015
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Memo, a new messaging app in which people can gossip about work anonymously, has drawn the ire and interest of b​​​oth employees and employers.

But its creator tells the Society for Human Resource Management that he believes the app can help HR better engage employees.

The app was in beta testing until it launched in the iTunes store Jan. 16, 2015. Thousands of employees from more than 500 companies, including Amazon, Disney, IBM and eBay, have reportedly used the free app to discuss their managers, working conditions, wages, telework options and other workplace issues.

The app went into beta testing over Thanksgiving 2014, according to the company that created the app, Collectively. Users can post comments, called memos, as well as comment on existing posts and link to websites. Eventually, users will be able to upload files, documents and photographs. It will be available for Android users this spring.

“We’ve gotten two cease-and-desist letters and one series of e-mails that were very concerned about our marketing campaign,” Ryan Janssen, CEO of Collectively, said in a telephone interview with SHRM Online.

The companies objected to Collectively using their company names in ads on Facebook. The parties have reached a resolution, he said.

“We spend 40, 50, 60, 70 hours a week working but we always have to put this little bit of a mask on and that’s hard and stressful—constantly feeling like you’re being judged professionally for what you say,” Janssen said.

“We have to rethink professional identity and how we can get people to be open and honest and say things they normally wouldn’t say about work—and we realized the only way to do that was to give them anonymity.”

How the Memo App Works

Users sign up for Memo either with their company e-mail address or through a LinkedIn account that is connected to their company e-mail. Their credentials are never stored on Collectively’s servers.

“The only information we receive is when you’re verifying your company. As soon as we get the information [it’s] … never written to a hard disk ever and we automatically assign [users] a random ID.”

So, Janssen said, even if Collectively is subpoenaed and required to turn over user information, the company won’t be able to identify individual users since no user information is stored.

“The court wouldn’t need to subpoena us for the memos themselves since any company member could just hand law enforcement their phone and they could read them,” he said.

According to the company’s privacy policy, Collectively does have internal access to the content of memos; Janssen said they are stored indefinitely. While the company doesn’t know who created any of the content, it does know what company is associated with it. “We may access this content for moderation, legal, statistical analysis, or any other reason that may be important for our business,” the policy states.

What are employers liable for, when it comes to the app’s content? For example, what responsibility falls on the employer if someone threatens to harm a colleague on Memo and then follows through?

“If someone using the app threatens violence and employer supervisors or managers saw the threats, the employer would be duty-bound to take reasonable security precautions,” Nicholas J. D’Ambrosio Jr., told SHRM Online during an interview. He is a labor and employment law attorney with the Albany, N.Y., office of Bond, Schoeneck & King. “There is no legal shield. But the individual making the threats is anonymous, so the employer could not be expected to ban the person from the workplace.”

Janssen said the company is working on ways to credential people who don’t have e-mail addresses (think workers in the fast food industry) and workers who have e-mail addresses that are just for internal company use. Memo users can have private conversations with colleagues on a private board just for users in that company or on a public board that can be seen by all of the app’s users.

Other apps, such as Whisper,Secret and Yik Yak, also allow users to swap secret messages without ever knowing the identity of the sender or user. Wickr and Confide allow friends who use anonymous IDs to swap encrypted messages with each other that expire once the messages have been read.

“With friends, we’re already open,” Janssen said. “But in the workplace there are major substantive issues that none of us talk about because our livelihoods” depend on keeping the peace at work.

“The conversations we’re getting [on Memo] are amazing,” he said, and not “gossipy” or malicious. “We introduced a moderation tool but we haven’t used it at all yet,” he said, referring to a mechanism that lets the app creators delete comments. “People aren’t gossiping; there’s nothing untoward. It’s people talking about their company in a frank and honest way” in whatever language they choose without fear of reprisals, he said.

“The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that people want to like their companies. They just get frustrated when they feel powerless. What we’re doing is giving them a forum that empowers them to speak freely,” Janssen said.

Is Anonymity the Answer?

The website Glassdoor also allows users to post anonymous comments about their employer; job seekers often review the site prior to applying for positions.

But any platform online that allows for anonymous chatting opens the door to “invective without accountability,” as Facebook Senior Vice President Andrew Bosworth told The Guardian.

“When people think they have the cloak of anonymity they will be unrestrained and say very foolish things,” D’Ambrosio added.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be that way, however.

In October 2014, Facebook created Rooms, an anonymous chatting app. It is available only in the iTunes store and allows users to create chat rooms focused on whatever topics they desire—but to do so anonymously. Facebook reportedly polices the rooms and takes down content it deems offensive.

Danielle Citron, author of Hate Crimes in Cyberspace (Harvard University Press, 2014) and a law professor at the University of Maryland, told Wired magazine that removing offensive content is a good sign.

“Maybe it’s partly a marketing move that Facebook is also getting into this space, but I’m optimistic,” Citron told the magazine. “This could be a sign that we’re starting to create a middle ground that takes advantage of the best qualities of anonymity.”

Janssen said he believes allowing employees the freedom to discuss their working conditions anonymously can be good for business.

“Nasty things grow in the dark,” Janssen said. “There are things you’re going to find out about your company that will blow your mind.” But if companies can see what their employees really think about their working conditions, that could help make them better places to work, he said.

Collectively is hoping to get employers on board. “We want to give companies some controls to moderate [discussions], respond to employee concerns, and provide sentiment and analytic tools so they can monitor and see what’s happening in their company. Ultimately it’s designed for HR professionals to understand how their employees are feeling … in a forum where employees feel safe to tell the truth.”

Law Prohibits Employer Surveillance

That may not be a good idea, however, said D’Ambrosio. While the National Labor Relations Act grants employees the right to discuss their working conditions (it’s called protected concerted activity), it also prohibits employers from conducting surveillance on their employees.

Collectively’s invitation encourages “employers to engage in what could potentially be illegal surveillance and create a lot of mistrust between employees and employers,” said D’Ambrosio.

“I would recommend employers stay away from this application because of the risk of being accused of illegal surveillance. I also think that the application poses a serious threat of disruption to the workplace because it will be difficult for employees to resist the temptation to engage in activity on this app when they’re supposed to be working.”

Employers have the right to ban their employees from using the app, D’Ambrosio said. And he called using the app “a complete abuse of the employer’s e-mail system,” though he acknowledged that “the most recent NLRB [National Labor Relations Board] ruling would say it’s protected under protected concerted activity.”

In that Dec. 11, 2014, ruling, the NLRB reversed a 2007 ruling, which held that e-mail systems are the property of the employer and the employer can set its rules on use.

D’Ambrosio said employees using company e-mail systems to engage in discussions about their working conditions is protected, “provided employees are having those conversations when the employee isn’t working [or] if they’re on breaks, at lunch or after work hours.”

As for Memo, Janssen believes corporate adoption is possible.

“I haven’t gotten any pushback from the companies themselves yet. There have been reports by users that their companies are pushing back,” Janssen said. Adoption “is just going to take some time. We’re climbing a wall of fear.”

Aliah D. Wright is an online editor/manager for SHRM and author of A Necessary Evil: Managing Employee Activity on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn … and the Hundreds of Other Social Media Sites (SHRM, 2013).​

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