By Mark F. Kluger and William H. Healey
We love new technology! In a week in which a Wisconsin employer announced that it was installing microchips in 50 of its 80 employees, it’s a good time to take a look at another new and perhaps less intrusive way for employers to gain greater access and insight into the lives of job applicants and employees. It’s called Venmo.
Unless you hang out with 20-somethings, know a few or are one (in which case you are probably not reading this), you may not have heard of this money sharing app, but it is all the rage among them. Essentially Venmo, which connects to the user’s bank account, allows those who want to split the check at dinner, pay someone back for drinks or the cost of an Uber, to use an app on their phone to identify the recipient, the purpose of the transaction and the amount to be paid, and to then automatically transfer the funds into the other’s Venmo account. The app is on track to process $20 billion in payments this year. So what does this have to do with us?
Venmo has a news feed feature which tracks every transaction. The feed shows to whom the payment was made, the date, amount and whatever description of the transaction the sender chooses (which can include emoji-like graphics). Here’s the good part: the news feed is accessible to any other Venmo user unless the user changes the privacy settings (default is public) and most of them don’t! How cool is that? And most of those Venmo users who know that there are privacy settings keep the public setting because they use the app, not unlike Instagram and other forms of “check-in,” to show their loyal followers all their cool activities (to which they only invited certain friends…ouch…left out again).
You may still be asking, why do we need to know this? There are two good reasons: First, if you want to snoop around about what a job applicant or employee does with their free time, the Venmo transaction history is for you. The transaction descriptions can be both telling and misleading, however. We have it on good authority, from a source that will remain anonymous because of her close personal (blood) relationship with one of the authors, that humor can be one of the goals of the description. So it is not uncommon, we hear, to see a transaction that could be payback for sharing a ride, described as being payment for “Crack” or the picture of a marijuana leaf. We were told that those who do use Venmo for buying drugs usually don’t advertise. Fortune online however reported, in a July 10, 2017 article, that out of 1,200 Millennials surveyed, nearly one-third said they use Venmo to buy drugs and 21% volunteered that they use it for gambling. According to a different survey, which analyzed 500,000 Venmo transactions, the three most common descriptions were Beer, Pizza and Fantasy Football. All good, wholesome sounding transactions or a really good way to cover up a drug deal. Maybe it’s better not to know.
The second and likely better use of the app for employers is in the investigation of workplace issues, either before or during litigation. We have seen so many baseless sexual harassment and other employment claims that it is always worth reviewing every objective source of information possible, including email, cell phone call records, text message history and now Venmo transactions.
With Venmo, all we need to do is pull up the transaction history of the accused and accuser to see if there are any insightful patterns or events. Some bright Harvard student has already invented software to do the analysis. If there are entries that show late night ride sharing, dinners or – even more telling — breakfasts, there may be a way to connect the dots to show that the individual who claims an unwanted pursuit may, in fact, have been involved in a consensual relationship with the accused. Either way, information that may not have otherwise made it to the surface can now be unearthed. Similarly, a supervisor’s underground relationship with a subordinate can likely be revealed with some cyber-snooping. Of course, if the pursuer wasn’t a cheapskate and just paid for everything, there may be no trail to follow. But chivalry is as dead as cash.
Back to Wisconsin. Three Square Market, a tech company in River Falls, is just cutting out the middle man altogether. On August 1, Three Square will be injecting a chip the size of a grain of rice between the thumb and forefinger of 50 employees (who it claims are volunteers). The chip uses Radio Frequency Identification Technology (“RFID”) and will allow the employees to swipe into the office, pay for food in the employee cafeteria, turn on their computer and use the copy machine. RFID is the same technology used to identify and track pets, a rather interesting parallel, although the company insists that the chips are secure and encrypted–which likely means that only the Russians will know where the Three Square employees are at all times.
The future – or perhaps 1984 – is upon us. Whether it’s Venmo or RFID, it’s all complicated, cool, crazy and concerning, but also important to know and use to your advantage. Stay tuned for what’s next.