The use of WhatsApp at work is increasing and with it are the potential pitfalls for both employers and employees. The popular instant messaging platform has approximately 2 billion active users and is the most commonly used mobile messenger app. It is frequently used in some workplaces (and banned by regulators in others). The pros as to why are easy to identify. The app is freely available and easy to use. And in the workplace it has an obvious appeal. Messages and other content can be exchanged promptly and securely and is private to individuals and groups.
WhatsApp can complement ‘official’ communication channels. In the fast-moving operation of, say, a big hospital WhatsApp makes communications about managing patient flows so much easier and immediate. It is the chief operating officer’s dream tool.
With such widespread adoption and with the increased use of WhatsApp for business communication, group sizes are also naturally increasing. WhatsApp recently doubled the size limit for groups to 512 participants and has also introduced WhatsApp Communities, making it possible to create larger groups for entire departments or teams.
But there are some cons and they often come to light at the unhappy point for an organisation that Verita starts investigating. Our work as an independent investigator shows that use of the app in the workplace can mean people are ‘always on’. Being unable to switch off can contribute to additional stress and risk of burnout, anxiety, relationship problems and insomnia.
The WhatsApp Business app was created with small businesses in mind, providing a way to communicate with customers. But employees of an organisation who use WhatsApp to communicate with each other use the same app as the one they use to chat with friends and family. As well as this, workplace WhatsApp is often being used on personal phones and relies on people being willing to share personal phone numbers.
WhatsApp has all the potential to blur the boundary between work and personal life – for example, a holiday request to a manager from a shift worker at 1am in the morning. Therefore, ground rules and guidelines need to be put in place, the same as with any other workplace tool.
Risks of using Whatsapp at work
Many use WhatsApp in the workplace to send and receive sensitive data and while messages are encrypted end-to-end, they may not be secure enough. For example, as groups become larger, it might not be easy to remember exactly who is in each group and sensitive data could end up in the wrong hands.
Not only this, it is hard to be sure people are no longer participating in groups after they leave employment, allowing sensitive information to be shared outside of the organisation. WhatsApp threads combining work and personal messages also run the risk of inadvertent sharing of sensitive data, as personal details are shared at work and vice versa.
Additional security risks of using WhatsApp at work are social engineering attacks where an employee could be tricked into providing their WhatsApp account credentials, or click on a malicious link that would give an attacker access to their WhatsApp account.
There is also a lack of clarity about the retention of messages. Is deletion within 24 hours acceptable? There is such a feature these days. So, the importance of setting out guidelines and information governance policies concerning the use of WhatsApp is crucial.
The lack of awareness on the potential risks of using WhatsApp at work as well as a lack of organisational policies to guide use of the app, leads to a great deal of confusion. Being such an undiscussed issue within organisations, many employees are left wondering if it is acceptable to use WhatsApp at work. Staff cannot be obliged to use the app but many question whether their employer can make them do so.
Management of WhatsApp communications in the workplace
From the perspective of an employer, there is a lack of management knowledge and oversight of WhatsApp communications. There will be questions around employment law for WhatsApp and whether WhatsApp messages can be used in an employment tribunal.
Due to the secure nature of WhatsApp, messages are not accessible to those outside a group, so an employer using this personal information could constitute a breach of privacy. However, messages shared within a work group which are offensive or discriminatory could be used as evidence in an employment tribunal.
We have seen WhatsApp used to harass people and if such comments are made in the course of employment then the employer can be vicariously liable. WhatsApp can also be a source of bullying and discrimination, for instance if an employee is deliberately excluded from a group.
The employment tribunal case (Case v Tai Tarian) is an example of this where an employee created a group in which discriminatory comments were made about a colleague who was deliberately excluded. Despite the comments being made within a private WhatsApp group, it still constituted bullying and the employee was dismissed for gross misconduct.
This highlights another risk of using WhatsApp at work – that inappropriate content cannot be policed. The ramifications of bullying and harassment can be disastrous for employees, not to mention damaging to employers, both reputationally and financially.
WhatsApp organisational policies
As an employer, it is important to consider setting some ground rules for WhatsApp, such as a clear organisational policy outlining appropriate use of it in the workplace. This should include the type of content and language which is acceptable, and guidelines which ensure individuals are not unreasonably excluded to avoid potential issues of discrimination.
If your organisation is considering using WhatsApp in your workplace, it is important to weigh the pros and cons carefully. You should also consider creating some guidelines for group use, such as limiting the number of people in each group and restricting the types of messages that can be posted. It is also important to be aware of the potential drawbacks of large groups and to take steps to manage them effectively.
Here are some examples of the type of guidelines which can help manage the usage of WhatsApp at work:
- Only use WhatsApp for work-related communication
- Do not share sensitive company information over WhatsApp
- Do not use WhatsApp to harass or bully other employees
- Do not deliberately exclude employees from WhatsApp groups
- Employees should limit their use of WhatsApp during work hours
How is WhatsApp used in your organisation? If you don’t know, maybe now is the time to find out.
Verita provides practical advice and recommendations on how to improve governance issues through independent investigations. We also have more than 20 years of experience handling workplace investigations so if your organisation needs to conduct an investigation and you are concerned about how to go about it, we can help.