When digital marketer Penny Kim wrote a post on Medium over the weekend detailing allegations of unprofessional and fraudulent behavior by her former employer, she thought she was just writing another post on her personal Medium account. Although she knew it was a possibility potential future employers might find the post distasteful, she didn't expect her account to receive the kind of widespread attention that would make it an issue.
Then the post went viral, receiving more than 3,400 recommendations on Medium as of Tuesday evening and coverage in Business Insider, Quartz, Inc. and other outlets. And readers were quick to pinpoint the startup that was the essay's subject, despite Kim's attempts to obscure the company. It was job-search platform WrkRiot.
Kim has a couple theories as to why her post struck a chord in the startup world. First, she thinks anonymizing the startup stirred interest, referencing a concept with which she became familiar after writing the post: the Streisand effect. It's the idea that hiding information can have the unintended consequence of publicizing it by motivating people to find out what's missing.
"I wouldn't say I'm pleased" with people unearthing the subject of her post, she tells Inc. "I'm impressed they did it. I'm shocked that they did at the speed they did it, but I'm not happy that all these names and faces are out there."
Second, she says that based on responses she's received from startup employees around the world facing experiences similar to hers--dishonest management, late paychecks and so on--the problems she encountered may be a lot more common than people realize.
"I think that's part of the hush-hush culture: A lot of people are not proud to talk about how they got screwed," she says. But a bad work experience can happen to anyone "and it happened to me."
One of the first comparisons that jumped into the minds of many when Kim's post started making its rounds were two Yelp employees who earlier this year wrote posts complaining of a stressful environment and low pay at the company. Those accounts also gained traction, and at least for a former Yelp employee going by the name Talia Jane seemed to help with landing freelance writing work after the fact.
You could argue that Kim made a move one could guess would get her some attention, but the Texan points out that she's not a Silicon Valley insider and didn't realize blasting a former employer on Medium or in a tell-all book is "a thing" in the world of tech startups. If anything, she was wondering whether writing about late paychecks, fake receipts for wire transfers of backpay, and a sign-on bonus that never materialized was an act of self-sabotage with no upside.
"You know honestly, I thought I was going to be blacklisted. I thought nobody wanted to hire me for this," she says. She wrote the post after being dismissed from the startup following her filing of a wage claim with the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement.
"After it went super viral, I was terrified. I was freaking out. I was like, 'Oh shit, I've got to get a lawyer.' I didn't know what was going to happen. But it just turned out to be the opposite," recalls Kim, a 30-something who has worked in marketing for more than 10 years.
Instead of blacklisting her, between 10 and 20 companies in the Bay Area and her home state of Texas contacted her to suggest she apply for marketing roles they had open or to offer to help her network, she says. Her job search remains ongoing.
In addition to filing a wage claim for a $10,000 sign-on bonus and three months of severance pay amounting to roughly $34,000, Kim says she has filed a retaliation complaint against the company over her dismissal. She says the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement told her they were still processing retaliation complaints from 2014. Assuming WrkRiot no longer exists in the future, her own complaint may never see the eyes of bureaucrats.
WrkRiot, before deleting its Facebook and Twitter accounts and putting its website under password lock, posted a Facebook status outlining intentions to pursue legal action against a "disgruntled employee" making defamatory remarks. Kim says that before that threat posted (and disappeared), the company had sent her a cease-and-desist message by email.
But she says she's not worried about getting hounded by a startup whose CEO allegedly borrowed money from employees. "My opinion is they don't have the money, so it's probably empty."
Inc. attempted to reach WrkRiot via Twitter before the company deleted its account. Other avenues to contact the startup appear to be closed or unavailable.