HR Magazine looks at the ups and downs of using social media platforms such as WhatsApp in the workplace.

Communicating with employees is always a talking point.  The rise in the number of social media platforms such as WhatsApp plus increased remote working has created a new reality where employers and employees increasingly use their smartphones to stay in touch, and/or access work-based IT systems.   A robust and up to date Social Media policy is vital to ensure the boundaries between an individual’s work and their personal life are clearly understood and maintained allowing these technological tools to be used safely, legally and to maximum effect.

Using WhatsApp for work can bring both advantages and disadvantages, so employers must stay on top of who is using it, when and why.

The rise in use of social media platforms has added a further dimension for employers to grapple with when managing staff working remotely along with work placed based employees. The new reality is that employees increasingly use their smartphones to communicate and/or access social media and messaging platforms via their employer’s IT systems. As part of this shift, employees often use WhatsApp for a mix of personal and business purposes.  This brings with it the challenge of effective monitoring during business hours.

Social media platforms clearly have benefits in maintaining communication and keeping employees up to date with work-based information, however employers need to be mindful of managing it carefully if they want to minimise the risk of exposing their business to allegations of breaches of confidentiality and data protection under the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR), as well as bullying and harassment claims under the Equality Act 2010.

The pros and cons of using WhatsApp.

WhatsApp is excellent for engaging with and managing remote teams. Its characteristic ease of communication combined with ever flattening hierarchies make it a great mechanism for groups to come together, have conversations, propose, and discuss new ideas or products along with other business activities. Security of the messages is supported by the end-to-end encryption, which means only the sender and the recipient/group can see the message.

There are however several workplace issues which can arise from the unofficial use of tools like WhatsApp.

Recent research has shown that more than 50% of workers use messaging apps for workplace communication and 38% for work-related matters, and this is likely to continue to increase. As a result, a growing number of employers seek advice on managing grievances and claims for bullying and harassment that involve inappropriate WhatsApp or other social media messages. Claims can arise from:

  • Being excluded from groups and plans for after-work social activities.
  • Gossip or ‘banter’ and inappropriate language in messages.
  • Inappropriate pictures or videos being shared.

Loss of productivity with staff using WhatsApp for personal or unofficial work engagement reasons during work hours are also cause for concern. 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 Working Time Regulations 1998.

How can employers protect their business?

Organisations need to have a comprehensive social media policy and clear contractual obligations regarding social media. The policy should set out the standards and examples of acceptable behaviour and language to be used when messaging for both employee-owned devices and those supplied by the employer.   The policy should be regularly reviewed and communicated to all staff. It should also cover out-of-hours activities which can still be classified as occurring ‘in the course of employment’.

To support this it is advisable to review your policy on the ‘use of mobile phones’ and consider whether the rules and expectations surrounding their use and guidance on when employees can access their mobile phones fit your current and future requirements.

If you actively encourage employees to use WhatsApp for business purposes via the employee’s own device, your policy should include a bring-your-own-device policy (BYODP). A BYODP will deal with the acceptable use of such devices, information security, privacy, and the employer’s right of access.

Other actions to be taken into account include:

  • Conduct regular audits of the communication and social media channels being used by your organisation’s employees, especially when you are reviewing existing policies or creating new ones. Make sure you identify which channels are official and which unofficial.
  • Being aware and alert to new apps and trends and update contracts and policies accordingly, to keep them fit for purpose.
  • Carryout regular employee and management training, on the use of social media technologies including the standards you expect to be followed. Training should occur during the new starter induction process but also be ongoing with regular refresher training for existing staff.
  • Ensuring the day to day use of messaging and social media are consistent with your expressed organisational values.
  • Making sure your employees are aware messages sent or received can be used as evidence in the organisation’s formal processes such as disciplinary or grievance. This also extends to external employment tribunals or in court if deemed a requirement.

For further advice and guidance on writing your Social Media Policy and BYODP please don’t hesitate to get in touch.