Anonymous Review Site Glassdoor Not So Anonymous
A judge has ruled in favour of releasing anonymous user details posted on Glassdoor to billion-dollar NZ toy company, Zuru
It turns out posting anonymously on anonymous review site Glassdoor may be a thing of the past.
An American judge has just ruled in favour of kiwi toy company Zuru (valued at well over a billion dollars) — meaning it will be handed the details of former Zuru employees who posted
anonymous reviews on the Glassdoor site.
Earlier this year, Zuru filed in a California court to subpoena Glassdoor for information about posters who wrote scathing reviews of the workplace environment and management at Zuru.
I won’t repeat them here for fear of getting sued. To be clear, Zuru could wipe Webworm off the face of the planet.
This move was covered by Stuff back in February: ‘Kiwi toy giant Zuru wants to identify and sue former workers’:
New Zealand toy giant Zuru wants to sue former employees who posted serious allegations online about its company culture.
But there’s a problem — it doesn’t know who they are.
Documents filed in a United States District Court in California show Zuru intends to file a defamation lawsuit – in New Zealand – against one or more ex-workers who posted anonymous, critical reviews of the company.
I’d assumed Zuru would be unsuccessful. Glassdoor is a giant website, acquired by a Japanese firm for $1.2 billion four years ago. The secret to their success is that they bank on anonymity.
You’re hardly going to get former employees rattling off criticisms if their full name is there for everyone (specifically their former or current employer) to see. When you go to write a review on Glassdoor, the website is very clear:
What do you mean by anonymous?
Your contributions are anonymous to other users — meaning we will never display your email address, Facebook profile, or any personal information (optional info such as gender, age, etc.) with any of your contributions
This skips over the fact this perhaps isn’t the case when a company wants your head on a stick.
Glassdoor’s FAQ goes into a little more detail about how they will defend user anonymity. They know this is vital their success:
“If you or your lawyers ask us to disclose a user’s identity, you should assume that we'll tell you that we don't provide this information upon request. We know that there can be serious consequences to a user whose identity is revealed, including retaliation or legal action by a current or former employer.
If you send us properly served legal documents seeking user information, we will respond as appropriate to defend our users' right to anonymous free speech. We will object to and resist subpoenas we receive. And, if necessary and as appropriate, we will appear in court to oppose and defeat your request.”
This time, Glassdoor has failed.
While Glassdoor filed a motion to quash the whole thing, a judge has ruled in favour of Zuru.
Now, Glassdoor is legally required to release the contact details of the posters directly to Zuru, via Zuru’s attorneys. As the judge notes, “Zuru intends to sue the reviewers in New Zealand.”
I reached out to Global Gateway Advisors, the PR reps for Glassdoor — who got me this statement back in exactly 32 minutes.
I imagine they knew this was coming.
“We are deeply disappointed in the Court’s decision, which was effectively decided under New Zealand law.”
“We note that, contrary to Zuru’s contentions, the unflattering workplace experience reviews describing working at Zuru were authored by multiple former Zuru employees.
In this and many other cases worldwide, Glassdoor fights vigorously to protect and defend the rights of our users to share their opinions and speak freely and authentically about their workplace experiences, without fear of intimidation or retaliation.”
“Without fear of intimidation or retaliation.” Not this time, I guess.
Glassdoor goes on:
“Our aim is to empower job seekers in New Zealand and around the world to have access to information from those who know companies best, the employees themselves, in support of our mission to help people everywhere find jobs and companies they will love.”
This time, it appears Glassdoor has failed in this empowering mission. Certain members who wrote reviews — seemingly under the idea they were anonymous — now have their details heading to the worst possible place: The employer they slagged off.
An employer who has an excess of a billion or so dollars up their sleeves, and a lot of lawyers.
Why did this happen? Well, this sentence from Glassdoor is telling: “We are deeply disappointed in the Court’s decision, which was effectively decided under New Zealand law.”
Reading through judge Alex Tse’s ruling, the fact those posting reviews were based in New Zealand was of real detriment to them.
Glassdoor argued that Zuru’s defamation claim lacked merit, for two main reasons: That the reviews didn’t contain defamatory statements because the reviews “constitute opinion,” and that Zuru failed to prove that it suffered a monetary loss.
On the latter — the judge pointed out this would be down for a kiwi court to decide, and also mentioned Zuru had already kinda proven this:
“Zuru hasn't simply alleged that it suffered a loss; Zuru’s cofounders declared, under penalty of perjury, that because of the negative reviews, Zuru had to spend more money to recruit job candidates for a particular position.”
As for their first point, statements of “pure opinion” are protected by the First Amendment in America. But New Zealand doesn’t have this. Statements of opinion are not categorically protected.
Instead, it all comes down to “the honest-opinion defense”.
“Here, then, the question under New Zealand law isn’t whether the reviews on Glassdoor.com were opinions, but whether, if they were opinions, they reflected the reviewers’ honest opinions. That question can’t be answered now. The reviewers haven’t even been identified, much less appeared in court and offered evidence on the genuineness of their opinions. Zuru, at this point, just wants discovery—to learn who wrote the reviews.”
Which the judge has now granted.
It’s unclear how many times Glassdoor has had to release user details in the past. While I asked them directly, all I got was this vague statement:
“We typically prevail in the vast majority of these types of cases. To date, we have succeeded in protecting the anonymity of our users in more than 100 cases filed against our users.”
That’s great for those 100 cases, but what about other cases?
It’s unclear how many cases they’ve lost. Glassdoor or their PR reps won’t tell me. Online, reports are scarce. There’s this, from 2017:
The subpoena is in relation to an ongoing investigation by an Arizona Federal Grand Jury. Allegedly, a government contractor that administers two Department of Veteran’s Affairs programs committed wire fraud and misused government funds. As of March 2017, 125 reviews have been posted on Glassdoor by current and former employees of the contractor.
On March 6, 2017, Glassdoor was served with a subpoena ordering the company to provide identifying information about the reviewers, including emails, IP addresses, and billing information.
Basically, Glassdoor is going to get charged $5000 a day until they comply.
It was unclear if Glassdoor complied or not.
From the PR release Glassdoor supplied to me — it appears in this case they most definitely are complying.
It’s a bad day for former the Zuru employees, and it’s a bad day for Glassdoor.
It’s probably not a bad day for Zuru. They don’t really have bad days, constantly fawned over in the press. “The man who wouldn’t stop — and nearly died!” gushed the Herald.
“At just 18 years old, Mowbray and his older brother, Mat, tirelessly worked to build Zuru” said The CEO Magazine breathlessly. “A brand that has become one of the world’s leading, and most disruptive, toy companies with some 5,000 employees.”
In 2020 Zuru had a turnover of over a billion dollars, and according to every article I’ve ever read about them, fonder Nick Mowbray is living a great life:
Nick Mowbray is working from home, a 12-bedroom mansion in Coatesville, New Zealand.
The sun is shining on his 2,000-bottle-a-year vineyard as he explains what affords him this lifestyle: a fast-growing toy company called Zuru that he runs with his siblings Mat, 38, and Anna, 36.
“My philosophy is always work with scale,” he says, strolling the library of the 48,000-square-foot estate, which boasts a hedge maze and an indoor lap pool.
Why am I banging on about this? Look — this is complicated. As the judge said in their ruling:
“There are competing interests at play. Glassdoor wants to safeguard anonymous speech on its website. Zuru wants to protect its reputation. Both interests can’t simultaneously be accommodated.”
But my mind turns to the users of Glassdoor. The former Zuru employees. Power and money is part of the equation. I wonder about the lives of former employees who spoke out. Who relied on a website that does make a big deal about being anonymous.
It was about this moment that I realised billionaire Nick Mowbray followed me on Instagram:
His photos are mostly just him in nice locations: Flying on a private plane to Fiji, attending Coachella, and lots of photos on boats.
I drop him a message:
His latest boat photo on Instagram is from Zuru’s office party. It’s captioned “Celebrating with a TRULY great bunch of people — our ZURU NZ office. Super proud of the 5000 strong team globally.”
I wonder how former employees 5001 and 5002 are feeling.
I go back to Glassdoor’s PR reps, asking for clarity on when former employees details would be handed over, and how many names were involved:
They weren’t exactly forthcoming.
Webworm will keep on this — I’m fascinated what Zuru has in mind for those who betrayed them, and what this means for an anonymous review site Glassdoor which no longer seems all that anonymous.
I mean let’s throw it out here: Should a workplace be able to legally go after those who speak negatively about their experience? And would you submit a story about your former workplace to Glassdoor, considering what’s just happened?
Sound off in the comments below. See you there.
PS: If you’re a Glassdoor review-writer who wants to get in touch privately, I am firstname.lastname@example.org
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