What Yik Yak—a problem in universities—could mean to the workplace

Yik YakMost of the buzz around the mobile app Yik Yak is focused on universities, where its founders intended it would be used. Make no mistake. As surely as Facebook expanded beyond its university roots to become the top social network employees use in their day-to-day workflows, Yik Yak will make its way into the workplace.

The inevitability of employees adopting the anonymous messaging app has a lot of businesses concerned, considering the university experience. Several universities have taken the futile step of banning or blocking Yik Yak, but since it doesn’t rely on a WiFi connection—standard 3G and 4G cellular connections work just fine—many students continue using it in ways that don’t have school administrators’ blood pressure soaring. At Eastern Michigan University, for example, posts about three female professors posted during their lecture were “demeaning, many using crude, sexually explicit language and imagery,” according to The New York Times. One of the professors protested,“I have been defamed, my reputation besmirched. I have been sexually harassed and verbally abused.”

At Liberty University, the Georgia-based Christian college where U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) announced his presidential bid, students took to Yik Yak to protest being forced to attend. (The announcement was held during a Monday convocation; students are required to attend convocations on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.) One student shared a message reading, “I’m here so I won’t get fined.” Other students used Yik Yak to poke fun at Cruz and demonstrate support for potential opponents. Many of these messages found their way into media reports.

Business leaders must be wondering if messages from disgruntled employees might create similar problems for their companies.

Yik Yak is certainly not the first anonymous channel for employees to share their grievances about their employers. Glassdoor has been around since 2008, allowing employees to share ratings and reviews of their companies and CEOs anonymously. The data from Glassdoor has enabled third parties, like 24/7 Wall Street, to create quantified lists of the worst companies to work for in America. (After finding companies like Jos. A. Bank Clothiers, Frontier Communications, and Express Scripts at the top of the list, you have to wonder how many great employees dismiss the idea of interviewing at these companies, leaving them only with those mediocre workers who can’t get work anywhere else.)

Whisper and Secret are both anonymous apps. Secret, in particular, has been embraced in the workplace. It was through this app the public first learned of Google+ chief Vic Gundotra’s plan to leave Google. Secret, in fact, emerged as a prime venue for Silicon Valley rumors.

Yik Yak is different, though, mainly because of its 10-mile limit. As explained on Wikipedia, “it is intended for sharing primarily with those in proximity to the user, potentially making it more intimate and relevant for people reading the posts.” In other words, if you post from your university, it’ll mostly be others at or near the university who see those posts. Some universities have requested activation of Yik Yak’s geofence feature, which can “fence off” people in certain areas from accessing the app.

The same issues are bound to arise in businesses, where employees at a company location would have easy access to messages posted by others working in the same facility. Additionally, visitors (such as customers or job candidates on-site for interviews) would also be able to get a concentrated look at employee discontent. Given the disgusting nature of much of the messaging college students are producing, it’s not hard to imagine disgruntled employees behaving similarly.

No wonder leaders are worried. I have been asked several times what can be done about it.

While organizations can ask Yik Yak to geofence company facilities, the consequences of shutting down access could be as bad as the messages themselves. After all, a company that took such a step must have some pretty heinous employee messages to hide. Besides, employees who had embraced Yik Yak will simply switch to alternative apps if Yik Yak is no longer available.

The answer is to not give employees reasons to complain.

My father-in-law once owned a naval ship repair business in the San Diego area. It was one of the few non-union shops; employees routinely rejected attempts to organize. The reason was simple: My father-in-law made sure pay, benefits, and conditions were significantly better than the best contract the union had negotiated at any other shipyard. As a result, there were few complaints and no reason to seek representation.

The days of companies riding roughshod over staff with impunity are long over. Thanks to the digital commons, employees (and their spouses) can expose bad working conditions and other workplace inequities. At the same time, the younger generation of workers are clear in their expectations that they’ll apply their talent and skill to organizations who values are aligned with their own. Roadmaps are available to help leaders build social and emotional capital in their organizations. Leaders would do well to stop tackling low levels of employee engagement with a program here and a program there, instead adopting a more holistic approach to engagement by ensuring employees are treated like customers when it comes to providing a great experience.

Millennials also want to work for organizations that are as interested in making a contribution to society as they are in growing their profits.

There will always be haters no matter how great the company is; management will have to grow thicker skin to shrug off malcontents with no legitimate reasons for their griping. When a lot of employees are piling on, though, leadership shold see Yik Yak as an opportunity to identify problems that can be solved in order to make the work experience even better.

Transparency is a fact of life in enterprises today. Organizations that figure that out and use it to strengthen the workforce will be rewarded with loyalty, enthusiasm, innovation, and efficiency. Employees will be more likely to be passionate ambassadors to customers, the community, and other stakeholders.

Those that don’t will suffer and even fail.



  • 1.All the more reason employers need to be sure they treat their employees well and ethically.

    Bill Spaniel | March 2015 | United States