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What should managers know about WhatsApp & Text Messages at work?

Communication at work

WhatsApp and text messages are great for speaking with friends and family, but managers should proceed with caution when using them to contact their staff members.

Sending direct mobile messages is undoubtedly a fast and efficient method of communication, which of course has its advantages for workplace matters, but consideration needs to be given as to whether it is entirely necessary and the most appropriate means.

If you do intend on sending WhatsApps or text messages to your direct reports, check with them individually first as to whether they mind receiving them from you. Some people are more comfortable with texting than others, and some may prefer an email or a call. Some employees may feel that using WhatsApp and text messages for work purposes blurs the lines between their personal life and work life a little too much and if this is the case their decision should be respected.

If your employee confirms they are happy for you to send them work related WhatsApps or text messages still err on the side of caution, be mindful of the time of day you send them and how frequently. Keep work talk to work hours wherever possible and in general avoid sending messages late at night or early in the morning.

The amount of WhatsApps and texts you send should be kept to a minimum, particularly outside of normal working hours, so not to continually interrupt your staff member’s personal time. These factors are important to ensure you are not responsible for tipping the scale on an employee’s work life balance.

Next to consider is the content of what you choose to send in a WhatsApp or text message. A message that you may not intend to be offensive, or that you would not find offensive to receive yourself, could still be interpreted as offensive by the recipient, however well you think you know them.

A helpful rule of thumb is to think to yourself – would I mind this message being read out in a court or Employment Tribunal? This may sound extreme, but it is a common misconception that WhatsApp and text messages are private between those engaged in the conversation and that they can be deleted, not to be seen again. Messages could be disclosable and read out in the Tribunal (and often are). Increasingly, WhatsApp and other messages are likely to be the most important evidence in an Employment Tribunal case and of far more interest to the Judge than witness statements made after the event.

The nature of WhatsApps and text messages, which are primarily designed for personal interactions, can lull you in to conversing in a less professional manner than you usually would. Here in lies the danger. Sending mobile messages when you are the recipient’s line manager introduces legal, ethical and personal risks.

Performance Management or Conduct Issues

Performance management conversations and conduct concerns should never take place via text or WhatsApp message. If matters of this kind are not dealt with fairly and in line with your associated policy (or the ACAS code), you could be in breach of contract and left open to the risk of unfair or constructive dismissal claims that are difficult to defend.

Discrimination and Harassment Claims

Sending messages that are perceived by the receiver to be inappropriate and/or offensive could lead to a claim for unlawful harassment and/or discrimination.

You may perceive that you have developed a strong working relationship with your employee, or even a personal relationship that allows for a certain level of ‘banter’, but ultimately you are their manager and hold more accountability, therefore you should conduct yourself professionally (even if the employee chooses not to).

It is important to note that in relation to harassment claims, the Equality and Human Rights Commission Code advises that express objection does not need to have been made for conduct to be deemed to be unwanted. A single incident can be enough to constitute harassment. Additionally, the fact that an individual has tolerated unwanted conduct for some time or initiated/engaged in similar ‘banter’ does not mean that it cannot be unwanted.

What information is appropriate to send via text or WhatsApp message?

There are times when you may reasonably consider that a direct message is the best means to communicate to your staff member. These occasions should be in moderation and being mindful of the factors outlined above. Examples include:

  • Informing employees of an unexpected office closure
  • Alerting employees of available shift openings
  • Reminding employees to submit monthly expenses
  • Sharing directions to a job site
  • Arranging a work social event
  • Sending thank you for a job well done (followed up in person)

When constructing your message:

  • Keep it factual and concise – use other methods for longer communications;
  • Avoid humour and sarcasm because it can easily be misinterpreted (sounds boring I know but it is much safer and avoids any confusion);
  • Avoid emojis, gifs, memes, and abbreviations;
  • Check your message before you send it. A few typos likely won’t be an issue but as we all know, autocorrect can change the meaning of your message without you realising it.

To conclude, it is best to avoid texting employees, especially outside of work time, unless you need to communicate something urgent or logistical.

You might think the advice in this article does not apply to you, that you have a strong working relationship with your employees and the timing, frequency, and content of the messages you send is always entirely appropriate. The problem being that, because of the power disparity in your relationship, the recipient might not feel they can share their honest thoughts with you about your texting etiquette (or lack of) and, as we often see, you might not find out how they truly feel about it until they submit a formal complaint or contact their solicitor.

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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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