Revenge of the IT Worker

Monday Jun 16th 2008 by Eric Spiegel
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If teenagers are gossiping about friends on cyber-rumor sites like Facebook, what happens when tech-savvy IT workers launch such a site about their managers?

“He said what about me?”

I said this out loud because I could not believe my eyes. A peer had sent me an email, with the lead in “I thought you should see this – but you didn’t get it from me.” This was a substantial hint that what followed wouldn’t be pleasant reading. Also setting me on alert, I noticed the subject stated “Totally Unfair Review.”

One of my team members -- we’ll call him Jimmy -- had skewered me in an email to a co-worker. The email told a story about how I had written a quarterly review about Jimmy without any input from him. Jimmy was telling tales because this simply was not the truth. I had asked him for his input and he had ignored my request.

Now the fact that he was not happy with the review was not surprising, because Jimmy had missed a project deadline and had misled the team to think he was on target. That he had falsely stated he had no input is what ate at me. Turns out the co-worker didn’t care for Jimmy and therefore shared the email with his manager. (Note – as I have stated in past articles: don’t put anything in an email you don’t want shared, even to so-called confidants).

This whole episode got me thinking. What if the opinion of Jimmy was conveyed in a public forum? Not that Jimmy would have put his name to it, but even anonymously, with MY NAME attached to it. If you think it wouldn’t matter because no one would probably read it, think again.

The online world is changing the way feedback is made available. It used to be if you had a bad experience with something, it was between you and that person or business. Not today. If teenagers are experiencing cyber-rumor-mongering on sites like Facebook and MySpace, why is it not conceivable for this to happen in the business world, especially with technology savvy IT workers?

Consider sites like LinkedIn where it’s mostly professionals who put up their experience for all to see. It is typical on these sites for your “connections” to write a recommendation based on their experience working with you, which is attached to your online profile.

What if the tables were turned and former co-workers could anonymously post negative reviews about their experiences with you? At least with the recommendations, you have the control to reject them. Imagine if you couldn’t even provide a rebuttal?

Still think this isn’t an imminent possibility?

Check out the site TheFunded. Not quite what we are talking about here, but bear with me because I think it is a relevant example. This Web site was created by the CEO of an early stage technology company who has had multiple experiences with venture capital firms, not all of them good experiences. This CEO anonymously created the site to allow other tech startup entrepreneurs to post their experiences, both good and bad, with venture capitalists (VCs).

Think about this for a minute. VC’s typically reject 95 percent of the entrepreneurs they meet with – that’s the nature of their business. Imagine how many entrepreneurs are left with a bad taste in their mouth! But that isn’t the point. The majority of the comments I have read aren’t just glad-handed personal attacks but instead very thoughtful insights on how an entrepreneur felt they were treated by the VC firm, whether they ended up being funded by them or not.

The important point here is that all it took was one person to create a public Web site to provide the typically powerless entrepreneurs with a means to provide feedback to the typically all-powerful VCs. Also consider that this site took off like a rocket by word of mouth because of worthwhile content. If it was only garbage, no one would have noticed.

There are plenty of nasty comments about VCs that do not come across as professional, such as labeling someone as a sleazy used car salesman. Comments like these should be taken with a grain of salt because the underlying vitriol is apparent and in these cases no worthwhile feedback can be ascertained.

Well, how hard would it be for someone to create RevengeOfTheITWorkers? (No, the domain is not yet registered – as of June 16, 2008.) Sure, some disgruntled IT worker could create this anonymously, but imagine if someone with some street-cred in boss slamming, like the creator of Dilbert, created this site.

Would the site creator bear any liability for falsehoods posted? In our land of free speech, that is doubtful and it certainly hasn’t stopped TheFunded’s site. (You can read about the site’s mission from the founder -- who is no longer anonymous -- here in Wired.)

Another example of where workplace opinions are made public is Vault. This site offers feedback on companies (not managers per se) for anyone to see. Just search for a company under the message board tab and you’ll find a public forum about that company. For archived messages you have to subscribe, but newly posted information is free. Jimmy could have posted something about me here and I wouldn’t have known about it, unless I was tipped off.

In digging into the rules of the Vault’s message board, I found this statement. “Material targeting individuals in a negative or derogatory fashion are prohibited, unless such individuals are high-ranking officials of a company or have otherwise been covered in the media.”

Luckily I wasn’t a high ranking anybody back then, so Jimmy likely couldn’t have slammed me there. Phew!

I did some Google searches and couldn’t find any sites like this for providing public feedback specifically on managers. It doesn’t mean they aren’t out there, however they just might be low on the search totem pole.

For now.

If you have an employee who is not happy with you, I’d suggest you keep your eyes open online. And if you are that unhappy gal or fellow – perhaps I have just spelled out a golden opportunity for you to make some money from Web advertisements on a site along these lines.

Make sure you include a nice disclaimer like this one from the Vault. “The opinions expressed on Vault.com Message Boards reflect the opinions of the participants and not of Vault.com.”

Or make sure you hire a good lawyer – just in case.

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