A Snapchat for executives?

(Confide)
(Confide)

Have office gossip to dish, something negative to say about a job candidate, or confidential news to share with a colleague that shouldn't be forwarded around?

Confide, a new app for Apple devices that launched on Wednesday, is a Snapchat of sorts for executives. Except the new "off-the-record mobile messaging," as the company calls it, is aimed at professional users rather than teens. It also uses text rather than photos to send encrypted messages that vanish immediately after being read.

While raising questions about the potential for users who might try and hide unethical behavior, Confide comes amid growing interest in the ephemeral mobile messaging market. Snapchat, the service popular with young adults for sharing photos that disappear, is reported to have turned down a $3 billion acquisition offer from Facebook. And there are a number of other vanishing messaging tools, including Hash, Grphyn and Peek, though reports have called Confide the first aimed directly at professionals.

The idea for Confide started after co-founder Howard Lerman e-mailed Jon Brod, a former AOL executive and fellow co-founder, about whether he would recommend a former worker for a position. "I replied, 'Hey, you know what? Let me call you,'" Brod recalled. "Good, bad or subtle nuance, it's not something I particularly want in writing." After it took the two busy executives six days to find a way to connect via phone, they realized there was a business opportunity.

"We marveled at how inefficient that process was," Brod said. "Wouldn't it be interesting if we could bring off-the-record professional conversations to the online world?"

He and Lerman envision the service as a way for professionals to share off-the-record information digitally without it being permanently archived. From news about deals to candid assessments of job candidates to gossip about a boss, the types of messages Confide's founders expect will be sent most often could make it a digital water cooler of sorts. "Gossiping about your coworkers—that’s happening already," Lerman said. "It's impermanent and confidential. Email and text don’t let you do that."

But some see the potential, at least, for such a service to be used inappropriately. Kevin Werbach, a professor of legal studies and business ethics at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, said that "having the capacity to send disappearing messages is not inherently illegal or unethical—we already have that capacity in person or on the phone." But if an employee uses the tool to get around a company's document retention policies, for example, that could be an issue. "If there's a systematic practice of using this method to circumvent a policy, then that's potentially deceiving your employer, and that has an ethical dimension as well as a legal dimension."

Brod and Lerman say that Confide is simply a communications platform like email or instant messaging, and expect the user to comply with all applicable laws. They note that any illegal or illicit use of their service is in violation of their terms of agreement. "The reality is that for any communications breakthrough there is a potential for misuse," Lerman said.

Other misuse could be unintentional. Adam Grant, also a Wharton professor and author of the book "Give and Take," says that a service like Confide "allows us to take both the best and worst features of conversation and bring it into the digital world." On the upside, he said, people may be able to communicate more authentically, more efficiently and pass on bad news with less hesitation. "We know already that people are willing to say things electronically they wouldn’t say face-to-face."

That, of course, could be both good and bad. Given the ephemeral nature of the tool, it could lead to an increase in messages that are either misunderstood or more emotionally jarring, Grant says.

To add further security, Confide's developers designed the service so that only part of the message can be seen at once. Recipients must pass their fingers over the message to reveal more words, meaning the entire message cannot be viewed in its entirety. In addition, they have taken steps to prevent users from taking images of the message. The service alerts both the sender and recipient if a screenshot has been attempted. And according to Brod, "if a recipient attempts to take screenshot, it kicks them out of the app."

Confide's founders are currently self-funding the project, but intend to raise external capital in the next few months. Downloading the Confide app is free, though the founders plan to eventually generate revenue by adding a premium tier of service in the future. Brod says they won't be targeting the corporate market and selling the service to enterprises—their customers focus is on individual professionals.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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Jena McGregor | January 9