Reed Abelson :
(New York Times, April 30 , 2001)
Job-Linked Web Venting Turns Ugly
by Reed Abelson
Internet Message Boards Hold Risks for Abuse and
NEW YORK The talk was about a woman, a former senior
manager at PricewaterhouseCoopers who had won a $1.63
million sex discrimination case.
"A man who complains about things being unfair gets nothing,"
someone said. "A woman or minority who complains about things
being unfair gets what - a well-deserved $1 million and free ride to
partner?" He named a female partner as "a prime candidate."
"You guys are a bunch of idiots," came one angry reply.
"Anyone have any example of the stellar work she has done that
earned her the position?" another asked sarcastically, referring to
the female partner. "She wouldn't know how to fill out a corporate
or partnership tax return if her life depended on it."
This conversation was not conducted sotto voce around the
watercooler or over a lunch far from the office. It happened
recently in a far more public place: an Internet message board.
Thousands of message boards for individual companies have
emerged over the past few years, creating a window on what
some employees feel but never say publicly. Often the view
through this window is rather ugly.
On message boards for particular companies on third-party Web
sites like Yahoo and Vault, some employees are anonymously
expressing thoughts they would not dare say out loud. They are
freely showing their prejudices or denouncing other employees by
name, sometimes accusing them of incompetence or misconduct or
recounting salacious rumors about their sex lives.
"This is a problem that has exploded recently, in the last six
months," said Parry Aftab, a lawyer at Darby Darby in New York
who specializes in Internet-related issues.
All this makes for enormous challenges in the new electronic
communities. It can be useful for managers to find out what their
employees really think of them, but also devastating when hurtful
and hateful gossip is laid out for all to see.
While individuals may think they can remain anonymous when they
write these messages, companies can typically use technology to
identify the writers, according to Internet experts and lawyers.
Some companies have taken action. Richard Scrushy, chief
executive of HealthSouth Corp., brought a lawsuit against
someone who posted messages claiming an affair with Mr.
Scrushy's wife. Mr. Scrushy hired a lawyer who worked with an
investigator to uncover the identity of the writer, who turned out to
be a former employee who did not know either individual.
The lawsuit was settled, and the Scrushys dropped their criminal
charges after the former employee apologized for the postings and
agreed to perform community service and make donations to
Message boards are popular for companies, and they are also
common for schools, professional groups and other interest
groups. All raise troubling questions about how to permit free and
often useful exchanges that tend to be intertwined with vicious
gossip and hateful comments. For companies, some of which are
not even aware that the discussions are taking place, these
electronic dialogues represent a whole new challenge and area of
Yahoo relies on the users of its boards to complain about
messages. Others monitor what is said and will delete offensive
In the case of the PricewaterhouseCoopers partner, Vault, which
bills itself as an electronic watercooler, has deleted some of the
messages about the partner, according to users of the board. Vault
says it does monitor its boards but may not catch every offensive
Asked about the rest of the offending messages,
PricewaterhouseCoopers said it would notify the Web site about
Sometimes employees or managers at a company are attacked in
vicious detail. In recent months, for example, a Yahoo message
board on Startec Global Communications has been the site of a
pointed discussion by people who claim to be employees or
former employees of the Maryland company.
The message board has had numerous references to the ethnicity
of some of the managers.
"The Indians I encountered at STGC were racist, jingoistic and
narrow-minded," reads one message.
In a written response, Startec said its "management does not focus
on posts." The company, which described many of the messages
as "less than professional," said it discouraged its employees from
taking part in the discussions.
Disgruntled employees and former employees are increasingly
using the Internet to harass colleagues, executives or the company
itself, said Ms. Aftab, the lawyer, who is also the executive
director of CyberAngels.org, a nonprofit group that helps
individuals who are attacked in this way.
In one recent example, she said, an executive was being harassed
with e-mail messages sent to his family, employees and investors
that said he molested his children. In another, an employee set up
a Web site claiming to be another employee and offering to have
Employees and former employees are also using the Internet to
make claims of sexual harassment. On a message board for
American Express, for example, someone complained last August
about a manager at American Express Incentive Services who
"keeps hitting on me and/or saying totally inappropriate things
about women's breast size, etc." The person says that she "went to
our HR person," whom she identifies by first name, but that the
woman dismissed her concerns.
"We take all allegations very, very seriously," said a spokeswoman
for American Express Incentive Services, who declined to
comment on the specific claims.