The social media and communication landscape is constantly evolving. An estimated 96% of the workforce own smartphones and with this, according to the British Council, “a sense that life is accelerated, instant, hyper-connected and always-on”.

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In February 2020, WhatsApp reached the milestone of two billion monthly active users worldwide. Since 2014, WhatsApp has been the leading mobile messaging app and is continuing to grow. With employees often using WhatsApp for a mix of personal and business purposes, employers need to be aware of the challenges, the risks of blurred lines and the need to be able to effectively manage them.

WhatsApp can act as a virtual ‘water cooler’, allowing people to have conversations that may spark new ideas or products and other business improvements. It also allows quick exchanges of views when away from the workplace or the computer. The security of WhatsApp messages is ensured due to end-to-end encryption, which means only the sender and the recipient/group can see the message.

A growing number of MAD-HR clients are seeking advice on managing grievances and claims for bullying and harassment that involve inappropriate WhatsApp or other social media messages.

These situations commonly 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.

The risks of WhatsApp

  • Employees can feel excluded from unofficial WhatsApp groups (or other social media channels), and this could lead to successful claims of unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act 2010.
  • Employers and employees could be personally liable for bullying and harassment claims and could also be exposed to civil or criminal complaints under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.
  • By employers not adequately educating their teams of how to safely and effectively use this method of communication, there is a risk of exposing their business to allegations of breaches of confidentiality and data protection legislation.
  • Loss of productivity and distractions with staff using WhatsApp for personal or unofficial work engagement reasons during work hours.
  • Organisations with a culture of messaging after hours and over weekends could pave the way for work-related stress and breaching the Working Time Regulations 1998.

How can employers protect their business?

For employers to protect their business, they must have a comprehensive employee handbook which includes a social media policy, standards and acceptable behaviour, which is clearly communicated to all staff. Where employers encourage employees to use WhatsApp for business purposes via their own device, they should include a bring-your-own-device policy (BYODP).  A BYODP typically deals with the acceptable use of such devices, information security, privacy and the employer’s right of access. If you are unsure where to start, MAD-HR can use their wealth of knowledge and experience to support you with developing policies for your employee handbook.

We recommend that all employers carry out an audit of the communication and social media channels being used by staff when reviewing existing policies or creating new ones, identify which are official and unofficial and their purpose. Employers also need to be alert to new apps and trends for how they are used.

Cover the use of social media during your induction programme, so that employees fully understand the culture of the organisation and how this applies to the use of messaging and social media, both during their new starter induction as well as being part of regular refresher training for existing staff. Whilst the messages are encrypted, an employer may be required to present messages as evidence in tribunals or in court in the same way as emails or letters of correspondence. Your line managers and employees must be made aware of this.

The employer should also consider including social media in their offboarding activity, removing access from work-related channels and ensuring that all work-related content is removed from personal devices.