Real Employment Law Advice

WhatsApp in the workplace – What’s an employer to do?

Communicating with colleagues via WhatsApp

WhatsApp is becoming increasingly popular in the workplace as a way for colleagues to communicate with each other.   The mobile messaging app can be a really good way for team members to stay in touch – particularly if they are working remotely – to network and to share ideas.   However, the informality of WhatsApp chat groups, not to mention the private nature of the communications, can lead to problems in the workplace and in turn expose employers to the potential risk of legal claims. 

What are the risks?

One of the most common problems that can arise is when content is shared on a work WhatsApp group that others in the group find offensive.   Inappropriate material that is of a discriminatory nature can lead to claims of unlawful harassment and/or discrimination unless an employer acts quickly and decisively once made aware of the situation.   Another issue that can frequently arise is that of bullying – where an employee engages in abusive behaviour towards another via WhatsApp messages or by deliberately excluding them from a workplace WhatsApp group.  Such behaviour, if allowed to continue unchecked can lead to claims of harassment or constructive dismissal.  

Other risks associated with the informal nature of WhatsApp communications include inadvertently sharing confidential information or personal information.  This can quite easily happen in a large group where an assumption is made that something is common knowledge at work, whereas the information may only have been intended to be known by a small group of people.  

How can an employer guard against these risks?

Unlike email and internet usage, the employer cannot monitor what is said or shared in WhatsApp workplace groups.  WhatsApp accounts are private as they are usually set up on personal mobile phones, and the messages can only be viewed by individuals who are part of a particular WhatsApp group.   There may be any number of Whatsapp groups in a workplace at any one time that the employer will have no clue about – until, of course, a problem occurs.  

What’s App-ropriate….?

One solution could be to impose an outright ban on workplace WhatsApp groups, but it would be impossible enforce and would be a disaster for employer/employee relations.  No employer wants staff morale to plummet in this climate and with more and more employees working from home, a friendly “hi, how’s your day going” via WhatsApp from a colleague can make all the difference to an otherwise solitary day with only a cat for company. 

The better solution is to devise a workplace policy, similar to an email and internet usage policy, setting out guidelines for what is acceptable and what is not when communicating with colleagues via WhatsApp. 

A comprehensive policy will provide examples of what type of content and/or behaviour is unacceptable.   It will also explain the risks of inappropriate use of WhatsApp for the individual, including a warning that any breach of the policy by an employee is likely to lead to disciplinary action up to and including dismissal. 

We have produced a Group Messaging Policy which you can download and use for £30 plus VAT here: POLICY

Communication

Of course, it’s not enough to just have a policy – your staff need to be aware of it too.   Send it out by email to all staff and ask them to respond to let you know they have read it.  The most beautifully drafted policy will be of absolutely no use tucked in a file on a dusty shelf in the office, wedged between an old manual and a dry cactus plant.  

Having a policy is not going to prevent any issues occurring in the future in the workplace, but it will help particularly if an employer is contemplating disciplinary action against an employee who has been engaging in offensive or discriminatory behaviour via Whatsapp whilst at work.   You can envisage all sorts of creative arguments being used by an employee in defence of their actions – “those messages were private” being a common one and “but I sent it outside work” being another – but having a clear policy in place should help rebut these and support the employer’s case. 

Above all, what is important is to communicate clearly with staff about what behaviour is and is not acceptable in the workplace – however that behaviour manifests itself – and to act quickly and fairly once an issue is brought to your attention.  

How we can help

If you would like a WhatsApp policy for your workplace or have any questions about some of the issues raised in this article, please get in touch with us.

Photo from matam-jaswanth-LyPq-Bq97kM-unsplash-scaled – Unsplash

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The information contained in this blog post is provided for guidance and is a snapshot of the law at the time it is written. It is provided for your information only and should not be used as a substitute for obtaining legal advice that it specific to your particular circumstances.

The guidance should not be relied upon in any decision making process. It is strongly recommended that you seek advice before taking action.


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