Work WhatsApp Groups
As a mobile messaging app, WhatsApp offers teams an easy way to stay in touch, network and share ideas. It also allows employees to message each other discreetly, often without employers being aware. But this can cause problems if employees complain, or raise grievances about bullying, harassment, or degrading treatment within work WhatsApp groups.
The informality of WhatsApp chat groups, as well as the private nature of the communications, can also lead to problems in the workplace and in turn expose employers to the potential risk of legal claims.
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. It is important staff are aware when ‘banter’ goes too far, and the consequences of failing to meet this standard of conduct.
The likelihood is that thousands of WhatsApp or text messages are sent every day without employers being aware. It is often difficult for employers to police their employees during working time, let alone outside of working hours.
Any measures seeking to prevent employees from communicating with each other through WhatsApp are likely to be seen as overbearing, or even oppressive. This could have a damaging effect on workplace relations.
An employer’s best option for dealing with the dangers of WhatsApp is to have a sensible policy in place that sets out guidelines, expectations, and the potential consequences of breaching the rules. For example, any employee who engages in abusive or discriminatory conduct towards colleagues on WhatsApp could face disciplinary action. This could tie into any existing social media policy that an employer has in place.
If an employee is approached about inappropriate use of WhatsApp, there are two points commonly relied on in defence of their actions. First, they may argue that any offending comments took place outside of working hours and are therefore outside the course of employment.
Second, WhatsApp differs from other forms of social media such as Facebook or Twitter in that comments cannot be seen publicly. Instead, they can only be viewed by individuals who are part of a particular WhatsApp group.
Each individual case will differ. Employers are likely to have a strong case for taking disciplinary action where employees specifically set up work related WhatsApp groups designed to abuse or belittle other employees. Employers may wish to take robust action in these circumstances, such as issuing a final warning or even dismissing the employee.
Team members should be mindful that what they write in work WhatsApp groups (during and out of work time) could be used as evidence in workplace investigations.
There have been many successful outcomes from being able to use WhatsApp messages as part of ongoing investigations and disciplinary hearings.
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. Unlike email and internet usage, the employer cannot monitor what is said or shared in WhatsApp workplace groups.
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. This should tie in with existing social media policy. With a policy in place, employers can often act with a firmer hand when it comes to taking disciplinary action. Employers may also consider sending warning notices to employees where any inappropriate behaviour comes to light.
Above all, what is important is to communicate clearly with staff about what behaviour is and is not acceptable in the workplace and to act quickly and fairly once an issue is brought to your attention.
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