WhatsApp at the workplace : informal instant messaging at work

Does the private nature of WhatsApp conversations mean that employers are powerless to act and is there anything employers can do to prevent or restrict their employees from using WhatsApp inappropriately? Making use of the messaging application at work can bring both advantages and disadvantages, and is becoming increasingly common, and gradually being used by everyone at workplaces. Instead of sending an email that you will only read when you are actually at work managers can now drop you a WhatsApp and expect a response there and there.

The ongoing rise in use of social media has created yet another issue for employers to grapple with and manage in the workplace. The new reality is that employees are increasingly using their smartphones in the office or accessing social media and messaging platforms even at work. As part of this shift, employees now often use WhatsApp for a mix of personal and business purposes, which brings the challenge of effective monitoring during business hours. Some of the problematic questions employers could be faced with are: if they can commence disciplinary proceedings against employees who have conducted themselves inappropriately on WhatsApp.

Use of WhatsApp has become more and more relevant, largely replacing texting as one of the most popular forms of communication. But what role does WhatsApp play in the workplace? Unquestionably, it may have some benefits. More specifically, it may allow employees to interact more freely by setting up work groups while sending links and images to one another as well as inter-communicating in a faster way.

Like text messaging, WhatsApp allows employees to message each other discreetly, often without employers being aware. This can cause problems where employees complain, or even raise grievances on WhatsApp. There are clearly pros and cons in relation to social media use, and WhatsApp in particular, but employers need to be mindful of managing it carefully. Otherwise they face the risk of exposing their business to allegations of breaches of confidentiality as well as bullying and harassment.

Communication plays a vital role in the survival of any organisation. Knowing how to communicate and the best way to relay a message is key so as to achieve the desired outcome, especially because communication is need-based and targets to meet particular needs within the organisation. Social media have transformed corporate communication practices: Tools such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp allow organisations to speak directly to and solicit responses from the public quickly and affordably. But the original intention of these media was to connect friends, not customers or employees. For businesses, accustomed to managing all aspects of communications (and muting dissent), social media can be an awkward fit.

The pros and cons of using WhatsApp

WhatsApp groups at workplace can be very good and create an informal environment to share ideas and valuable information quickly, but their use can carry some risk with employees often seeing this as a grey area where the normal rules of work do not apply. WhatsApp is excellent for engaging with and managing remote teams. Recent research by Guild has shown that more than 50% of workers use messaging applications for workplace communication and 38% for work-related matters, and this is likely to continue to increase. Employers should make staff aware that they personally could be liable for bullying and harassment claims, and could also be exposed to civil or criminal complaints if they misuse it.

It is also important to note that it’s hard to enter a professional mindset on a personal applications. From its interface and user experience to its feature range, WhatsApp does not provide a professional context for workplace communication and networking. Employees should also be careful because messages sent in a work group may be used against them if an employer finds out that sensitive information has been discussed or defamatory remarks have been made. Managing those who enter and leave group chats at work can also be challenging. Just as it would be unprofessional to enter or leave a meeting or networking event without some kind of greeting, it wouldn’t be right to treat a professional discussion in the same way.

WhatsApp can be used for talking to customers. Customers actually respond quicker to messages on WhatsApp than they do to standard forms of communication such as phone calls. Instead of reaching out to customers via e-mails and phone calls, see if they are on WhatsApp and message them through faster. One of the big advantages of using WhatsApp to talk to customers is that it allows for informality.

Another major issue for employers to contend with is the loss of productivity with staff using WhatsApp for personal or unofficial work engagement reasons during work hours. Alongside this, if your organisation has a culture of messaging after hours and over weekends this could pave the way for successful claims in relation to stress and breach of the normal working time regulations.

Moreso there is also lack of transparency while utilising WhatsApp for your business. WhatsApp is meant for casual conversation. Anyone can create groups and anyone can private message anyone. If the organisation within your business needs to remain as transparent as possible to those at the top, this is not an ideal situation. If multiple groups and side groups are created, that can lead to a lack of knowledge and clarity, which in turn makes it difficult for managers to know what’s really going on.

How can employers protect their business?

An employer’s best option for dealing with the dangers of WhatsApp is to have a sensible policy in place. This is a useful way of setting out some guidelines. Employers could even set out in the policy that any employees who engage in abusive or discriminatory conduct towards colleagues on WhatsApp could face disciplinary action. Having a sensible and balanced policy in relation to WhatsApp and group text messaging is one way that employers can try to manage this issue. A policy could include examples of what is considered acceptable behaviour. As mentioned above, this could tie in with existing social media policy.

All organisations need an inclusive social media policy and prescribed requirements regarding social media. This policy should set out the standards and examples of tolerable behaviour and language used in messaging, whether on devices supplied by the employer or the employees’ own devices, and this should be clearly communicated to all staff via the HR. We encourage that all employers to carry out an audit of the communication and social media channels being used by staff when reviewing existing policies or creating new ones and identify which are official and unofficial. WhatsApp conversations can be submitted as legal evidence, so you should use it wisely. For employees with WhatsApp on work phones, a good rule, says if you want to keep something private from work, keep it entirely off their radar and their systems.

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