Bumble, Grindr, and Hinge Moderators Struggle to Keep Users—and Themselves—Safe

An investigation reveals that workers dealing with user reports on dating apps struggle with “unattainable” expectations and traumatic content.
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Photo-illustration: Jacqui VanLiew; Getty Images

“I wasn’t able to go outside anywhere alone,” Ana says. “I had so much anxiety that when I went outside to do errands, I lost consciousness twice. That’s when I realized I was very sick.”

Ana began working for LGBTQ+ dating app Grindr when she was in her early twenties, one of hundreds of Hondurans hired by US-headquartered outsourcing company PartnerHero to work on the account. Her team was based in San Pedro Sula, Honduras’ second city, where they handled tasks ranging from the mundane—tech support emails and billing queries—to the horrifying: user reports of sexual assault, homophobic violence, child sexual abuse, and murder.

Her mental health deteriorated, but she feared that if she complained she would struggle to find work at other outsourcing companies in Honduras, and her illness made it difficult to look for other jobs. “I couldn't get out, because I couldn't leave my job,” she says. “I couldn't fight for more. I didn't speak up.”

Ana joined PartnerHero as an ambitious young graduate, ready to start her career. She left in 2019 with anxiety and depression, unable to work for months afterward. She says she was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The online dating industry is enormous, with reported revenues of around $2.6 billion last year. Bumble, Grindr and Match Group—the conglomerate that owns Hinge and Tinder—are worth a combined $13 billion. But the platforms have long been criticized for the abuse, harassment, and offline violence that their users can face. To try to improve safety, these platforms employ, typically via outsourcing companies, a global workforce of moderators like Ana, who, along with other sources interviewed for this story, spoke under a pseudonym so she could speak freely about her experiences.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) interviewed more than 40 current and former workers based in Honduras, Mexico, Brazil, India, the Philippines, the US, and the UK who worked on behalf of Grindr, Bumble, and Match Group. Conditions across the groups varied, but the trends were stark. Workers spoke of mental health issues, including symptoms of anxiety, depression, and PTSD that they associated with their jobs, but said there was a shortage of support. Some raised concern about understaffing and punishing productivity targets, which they say undermines the quality of their work and, in turn, means people using the apps are less safe, with abuse reports going unaddressed for long periods.

Shervin Talieh, CEO of PartnerHero, told TBIJ it is “committed to being at the forefront of employee welfare in our industry and equally committed to supporting our partners’ important missions and the safety of their users.” Sarah Bauer, a Grindr spokesperson, said privacy and safety components were built directly into the app in order to eliminate illicit activity. “We hold our partners to the highest standards of collaboration, integrity, and trust, and we regularly evaluate how our partners are meeting these criteria.”

People who use dating apps may not realize that if they report abusive behavior such as harassment or sexual assault, their complaint could be initially reviewed by an outsourced worker in Honduras, India, or Guatemala. The principal reason for this outsourcing is cost.

Grindr has downsized its internal trust and safety team and now relies heavily on outsourced workers. PartnerHero, which works for Grindr, employs most of its workers in Honduras and the Philippines, with a smaller team in Brazil. The company advertises these locations to businesses as an opportunity for “substantial cost savings” on wages, recruitment, taxes, and facilities. It also has smaller hubs in Germany, Romania, and South Africa.

Bumble has gradually shrunk its international network of freelancers and hired a team of moderators based in India, via outsourcing firm TaskUS, which is headquartered in Texas but recruits the bulk of its staff from the Philippines. In 2022, Hinge laid off the majority of its US-based moderators and replaced them with 43 agents employed by outsourcing company Telus International in Guatemala, according to sources at the company. Starting salaries for those agents are significantly less than their US counterparts.

The work that these moderators do is critical. They help decide whether a user should be banned from an app and whether the case should be “escalated” to staff safety specialists. The reports that they deal with can range from dangerous, violent, and abusive behavior to harassment, bigotry, blackmail, and drug-dealing. An incorrect decision on an abuse report could have serious consequences. TBIJ reviewed one woman’s report of a sexual assault that occurred after a Hinge date, which was left unanswered. Only when the woman chased it—a year later—did Hinge ban the user in question.

But outsourced workers for the dating apps allege an under-resourced and overstretched production line for dealing with user reports. The situation is made worse, they add, by companies setting unattainable targets. “Sometimes we made mistakes that we were not accounting for, or [that] could have been avoided if we had more people,” says one former Grindr moderator.

Laura, who worked as a Bumble safety specialist in the UK until 2022, says there was a “huge backlog” of serious cases, something that she ascribed to “chronic understaffing.”

Bumble’s FAQs say it aims to resolve all reports within 48 hours. Laura says wait times were often far longer, sometimes leaving even the most serious cases unanswered for weeks. Backlogs of dating app tickets are likely to lead to delays in dealing with serious issues, two sources say.

“There were not enough people to cover the quantity of stuff that was happening,” Laura says. “So rather than hiring more people they put more pressure on us to get higher numbers.”

Bumble staff work through “queues” of reports, Laura says, and the company’s system was color-coded. “If you were within the [target], everything was in gray, or if it was getting to be bad it was orange, or if it was really bad it was red … and basically it was always red, all the time.”

As workers left, the number of Bumble’s member safety specialists, who work on escalated cases, went from 15 people to a low of seven in spring 2023, according to one former worker, though Bumble has recently begun hiring to fill gaps. “We were seeing a ton of issues with various cases sitting in our queues for multiple weeks before any action was taken,” alleges one staff member. “The team was feeling really overwhelmed with the backlog that had built up and feeling like you would catch something super serious way too late.”

Several of PartnerHero’s Grindr workers also expressed concerns about a backlog of tickets. While some said they were usually able to clear them quickly, staff who worked on other unrelated teams at PartnerHero described being drafted in to help out.

Workers for Grindr, Bumble, and Hinge say they were subject to unreasonable targets and often expected to make complex decisions about whether a user should be banned from the platform in a minute or less.

Laura was one of a number of workers interviewed who voiced concerns over user safety. “When it came to keeping members safe, it wasn't really the policies as such that were the problem, it was more to do with the execution,” she said. “Because we were understaffed, people could be waiting days or weeks to have their reports seen … For something serious, that means that person who's been reported may have been on the app for all that extra time.”

“Rigid targets aren’t appropriate for the kind of work we do, because we experience a lot of secondary trauma," Laura says. “It could be like someone's just poured their whole heart out to you, talking about some really traumatic experiences that they've gone through, like assault … and you're supposed to respond to it like you're a robot.”

Bumble did not provide an attributable comment.

Kayla Whaling, a spokesperson for Match Group, said: “Safety is imperative to our business, and our continuous efforts to enhance our features and policies in order to make our platforms safer for everyone will never stop.”

Dealing with often disturbing material in a high-pressure environment puts a heavy toll on moderators. PartnerHero workers interviewed by TBIJ say they received little support, with some penalized and even fired during mental health crises associated with their work.

Gael, a freelancer who worked for Bumble from his home in Brazil until earlier this year, still struggles to discuss two cases of child sexual abuse he was tasked with reviewing. “It's fucked up to actually speak about it, because it kind of brings back the image,” he says. Those cases “didn't allow me to sleep well for a few weeks after.”

Gael felt he had not received adequate training to deal with such distressing images. “It's like they expect for you to be smart and agile enough to handle these types of situations,” he says.

Of the 14 former Grindr moderators TBIJ spoke to, virtually all testified to the traumatic working conditions they faced. Some said symptoms of distress were widely evident among staff. "Everyone's emotions, at some point, started to leak into the air,” says one former moderator. “People were able to feel it … They noticed the tension, the hostile environment. It was awful.”

At one point, a number of Honduras-based workers were exposed to images of child sexual abuse attached to an email from a Grindr user. “We had three people just leave that day … They could not handle it,” one worker says.

Another worker says they had attempted suicide multiple times during and after their time at the company.

PartnerHero began working with Grindr in 2017, and the workers it hired were initially recruited into generic customer support roles. While they were always required to perform tasks related to user safety, over time PartnerHero took on the bulk of Grindr’s content moderation.

Workers at Grindr and Bumble say they had to fight hard for their entitlement to mental health benefits. These varied significantly depending on the app and the contractual status of the moderator, and staff members tended to get better support than freelancers and outsourced workers.

Outsourced Grindr workers at PartnerHero say that despite their repeated requests, there was little mental health support available to Honduran staff until 2020, when a third party was contracted to provide therapy and subsidized mental health support was added to the company’s health insurance scheme. However, several people who worked for PartnerHero after these benefits were introduced say they were not aware they existed. Before this, members of the Grindr team say they were told they could speak to a member of the HR department.

Grindr workers say they continued to lobby management for more mental health support and, in November 2022, PartnerHero hired a staff wellness coordinator with a background in clinical psychology. PartnerHero CEO Talieh told TBIJ that everyone on its Grindr team in Honduras receives medical and mental health plans and access to an employee assistance program, with enhanced offerings for moderators. “We have collaborated with Grindr to evolve processes and training,” he says.

“We respect how difficult the role of a content moderator can be and have worked in collaboration with PartnerHero over the course of our relationship to consistently improve processes, training, and support for the moderation team,” says Grindr spokesperson Bauer.

Juan Manuel, VP of operations at Telus International Guatemala, says the company recruits its moderators carefully and “delivers robust training (ongoing), and provides a best-in-class, holistic wellness framework.”

At Bumble, workers say they were able to access mental health support through a private health insurance plan and an employee assistance program. In 2022, the company expanded its offer, introducing a “wellness stipend” that could be used to expense therapy sessions or other health care and hiring a wellness liaison, who is trained to offer mental health support to employees. However, Gael and Oscar say these benefits were not available to freelancers.

Conditions across the outsourced moderation industry may be getting worse, not better. Layoffs have been a central feature of the US tech industry in the last two years as interest rates have risen and venture capital funding has dried up.

Match Group has also deprioritized safety measures since 2022, three sources who formerly held senior roles at the company allege. These cuts had left trust and safety teams overstretched, two of these senior sources say. Match Group’s Whaling said: “We have increased our safety investments and brought in leading safety executives who have continued to build new roles and expanded existing safety functions, resulting in a 30 percent growth of our trust and safety teams over the past year.”

At Grindr, sources say, resources for moderation have been cut. “When companies are trying to increase their [profits] they look at operational costs,” says Sarah, a worker who left Grindr this year. “Usually [for] customer operations and content moderation, there's a really big dollar amount attached to that. So that's usually the first thing that’s on the table to be cut.”

Sarah alleges projects aimed at preventing banned users from getting back on Grindr and reducing moderators’ exposure to distressing content such as child abuse material had been deprioritized in favor of cost-cutting and increasing revenue. At Grindr, an already small internal safety team had been slimmed down further by mass resignations after the company’s enforcement of a strict return-to-office policy.

In August, Grindr management gave workers two weeks to decide whether they would work twice a week from offices in Chicago, Los Angeles, or San Francisco. Around half of its 178 employees declined and were forced to resign, according to the Communications Workers of America, which is representing the workers.

The CWA alleges the enforcement of the return-to-office policy was in retaliation to the formation of the Grindr United union in July and has filed a case for unfair labor practices. Grindr says these claims are without merit. “There’s just so many people who are gone,” says Madison, a Grindr worker. “There's barely anyone. There's no manpower to really fix things.”

There are just three internal safety staff left at Grindr overseeing teams at PartnerHero, two sources say, which are now covering the entirety of its moderation work—including complicated legal requests and the crisis management team—outsourced to PartnerHero.

Bauer, the Grindr spokesperson, says the company “will continue to invest heavily” in automation processes that protect moderators from distressing content. “Our safety and legal teams, which are sufficiently resourced, continue to review complex user reports as necessary.”

Some of the former moderators who have now left the industry speak of a great sense of relief.

Ana says her health has improved. “Today, I can go outside and do some errands on my own,” she says. “My family is still worried … but I'm in the process of regaining my independence.”

Gael too says he now feels “a lot lighter.” “I was very happy when I left the job [at Bumble]. Because although it paid really, really well … it was affecting my life a lot.”

But others have likely taken their place. “These people are viewed as disposable,” says a former senior manager at PartnerHero, describing the industry. “So when they burn out, they just bring on the next one, and there’s plenty of people … who are willing to get in the door.”

If you or someone you know needs help, in the US call 1-800-273-8255 for free, 24-hour support from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for the Crisis Text Line. Outside the US, visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for crisis centers around the world.