WhatsApp at work: A cautionary tale

Dance like no one is watching. Message like it might be read out at a tribunal.

Need an urgent question answered? Need a quick second opinion on something? Let’s just use WhatsApp! The recipient’s phone pings and there’s a considerable chance you’ll get the response you need in record time.

By now, most of us have probably done exactly the same with a work colleague. In this increased hybrid-working era, the use of casual instant messaging platforms is growing alongside the more corporate Microsoft Teams or Slack. Not forgetting the numerous group chats you may find yourself in, whether project-specific or for after-work drinks.

Here’s where it gets tricky.

Instant messaging is exactly what it says on the tin – instant and all too easy to make spur of the moment careless comments. Especially if ranting about a work situation that has left you exasperated.

You may feel better for getting it off your chest but, instead of offloading to a partner in the privacy of your own home, letting loose online means it’s written down and traceable should someone take offence or share what you’ve said.

Sounds unlikely? What about the Aberdeenshire school teachers reported to be criticising vulnerable students via WhatsApp or the Met Police officer found guilty of sending an offensive, racist message to a group of ex-officers?

Ok, so perhaps that’s more likely in a group message but what about private messaging between two people? The reality is that WhatsApp messages or similar may have to be disclosed as part of court or employment tribunal proceedings or in reply to a data subject access request.

The Covid-19 Inquiry is a prime example.  We’ve seen Boris and various MPs and civil servants ordered to submit communications sent during the pandemic period. Former Scottish Premier Nicola Sturgeon hit the headlines most recently for having deleted all such messaging, along with her Deputy First Minister.

Not to mention the infamous ‘Wagatha Christie’ trial when Rebecca Vardy’s agent dropped her mobile phone into the North Sea. It meant the messages between her and Vardy could not be read out in court as, in another unfortunate turn of events, the same messages were accidentally lost in a failed digital back-up at the Vardy end. Sensational yes, but it shows how the prospect of potentially inflammatory private messages ending up in public hands is a very real threat.

Of course, the same applies to emails (and not-so-private social media posts). Once you hit that send button, it’s out there and may come back to bite you.

So apart from personally thinking twice before we joke or rant about a colleague or client, what can be done at a senior level to alleviate the risk of ‘harmless banter’ turning into a much bigger grievance or employment issue? Expand policies to cover social media, usage of third-party messaging apps and emails, highlighting appropriate communication and behaviour, and warning of the legal and reputational risks to both employee and employer.

Ensure your employees feel like they have a voice and are confident that they will be listened to and their opinions valued. This helps avoid harmful gossip and the growth of a toxic workplace culture that can cause real harm to an organisation.

The key: Ensure your organisation’s values are fuelling everyday behaviours. If your overall purpose and what you stand for is not clear, then a positive, enticing workplace culture becomes harder to achieve and the knock-on effects can be detrimental to staff satisfaction and retention levels. Encourage open and honest dialogue with the assurance that all concerns will be heard in an amiable, responsive way.

Grey Lemon is here to support you with all of the above. As business transformation consultants, we empower organisations to grow on your own terms. We can oversee every aspect of your business ecosystem from enabling you to clarify and articulate your purpose, values and behaviours to supporting you with the creation and embedding of robust policies and procedures. Our People team includes expert HR professionals and mediators who can help you to navigate difficult conversations and grievances should they arise.

You can find further information on all of our services here or drop us a line at enquiries@grey-lemon.com.  

As for the perils of instant messaging: if in doubt, leave it out!

You know your business.

We help you see it through fresh eyes.



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