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Web Site Charges Cos. to Access Employee Gossip

OfficeLeaks.com, an online forum through which employees anonymously post comments about the companies for which they work, is now seeking to profit by charging employers a fee to gain access to the online conversations.

New Web site OfficeLeaks.com allows employees to anonymously submit comments about their employers.

Some built-in functions of the site, which launched on April 1, are meant to ensure that users remain honest-but companies now must pay $99 per month if they want any control over their employees' conversations.

Ryan Masanz, former owner of Twin Cities-based IT services provider Next Genesis, Inc., created the online forum. He said the site provides an outlet for employees to discuss their companies in a way they typically wouldn't without a safety net of anonymity. Users register for free by supplying an e-mail address, but Masanz says the site doesn't maintain information that could be traced back to users.

Users create a "community" based on the company they work for, and they're free to post virtually anything, except for defamatory or abusive comments, company trade secrets, or copyrighted material. The site currently has roughly 500 users from 260 employers, ranging from Target and Best Buy to the University of Minnesota. Currently, about 30 percent of company communities created by employees are from the Twin Cities.

Comments on the site range from employees complaining about summer dress codes-"Let's band together this year and have an open-toe shoe revolution!"-to a user questioning which of his or her company's campuses will be affected by layoffs: "Don't leave us hanging! I heard west campus, and my source is ultra reliable. I actually think it is a good thing; there's some dead weight in that department. Have you seen their stats lately?"

The site's terms tell users not to misrepresent their affiliation with any people or entities, although that may be difficult to enforce, given the site's emphasis on anonymity.

"To be honest, it is an anonymous forum-you can post anything," Masanz acknowledges. "You're going to have truth mixed in with some lies. It's the nature of the beast. But at the end of the day, I still think it's a very good thing to have." Roughly 80 percent of the posts to date have been "very constructive," he added.

Users' comments about a company are generally accessible by the public. But for a $99 monthly fee, businesses can "sponsor" their respective user communities-granting them additional control over the conversation. For example, a sponsor can make its community private so that only users who register as employees of that company can access the associated content.

OfficeLeaks.com launched the sponsorship opportunity on Sunday, and Masanz says the first executive he's heard from who plans to sponsor his "community" is Abir Sen, CEO of Minneapolis-based Bloom Health.

Masanz says that many local business owners are initially "very cautious" about the forum but do recognize the benefits of sponsorship. He hopes to see 500 sponsorships by the end of the year and says that due to very little overhead, it would only take a few sponsorships to cover costs.

Sponsors can post questions for users who claim to be employed by the company, receive instant updates when posts appear on their communities, and delete up to five posts per week if those comments violate Office Leaks' rules.

"It's kind of a scout's honor thing at this point," Masanz admits, adding that if a user's comment is deleted, he or she can contest the removal by contacting OfficeLeaks.com.

When contacted by Twin Cities Business, Minneapolis-based Target declined to discuss OfficeLeaks.com.

University of Minnesota spokeswoman Patty Mattern said that the school hasn't considered a sponsorship through OfficeLeaks.com, but noted that the school has several outlets for employees to share concerns, including a telephone hotline. Similarly, a Best Buy spokesperson told the Star Tribune that it has its own internal online forum, called "WaterCooler," on which employees may post comments.

OfficeLeaks.com has only been promoted through word of mouth, but Masanz intends to ramp up marketing efforts.

When asked whether the forum could pose legal risks, Masanz said that the site acts only as a "passive conduit," adding that he's spoken with several lawyers who believe the model shouldn't lead to legal problems.

According to a report by the Star Tribune, however, some legal experts think the site could put employees at risk of losing their jobs if their identities are somehow discovered.

Next in the pipeline is a "company review system," through which users will be asked a series of questions each quarter regarding their employer. Those responses will contribute to an overall "company score."

"This is genuinely pro-employee in an economy that isn't," Masanz says. "People are stressed out about their jobs . . . and I think it kind of makes them apathetic when it comes to really speaking out in their organization. Hopefully this gives them an outlet to do that."

 

 

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