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The perils of using WhatsApp at work

The perils of using WhatsApp at work
The informality of WhatsApp is a double-edged sword for companies and employees who use it for work-related communication. Photo: Bloomberg

The perils of using WhatsApp at work

A WhatsApp group proved invaluable to Gillian Keegan after she was elected member of parliament for Chichester in the United Kingdom’s June election. By messaging the group for female Conservative politicians with the free alternative to SMS on her private phone, Ms Keegan could tap into the collective experience of her new peers, which includes MPs with more than 20 years’ parliamentary experience.

With a swipe of her smartphone, she found advice on dealing with social media abuse, interviews with the press, managing a rural constituency, Post Office closures, and even gardening tips.

Describing the group as a “Mumsnet for politicians”, Ms Keegan, who previously worked in finance, IT and manufacturing, prefers WhatsApp to email — the tone is informal and supportive.

By contrast, emails tend to be business-related and overwhelming. “You wade through [diverse] stuff, you get distracted,” she says. She is a member of several political WhatsApp groups, and groups for her office and family.

While informal workplace chat groups can be informative, they are also risky. Employees may find themselves bullied, excluded or overloaded. When used inappropriately, messaging services could damage an employer’s reputation.

WhatsApp and others are attractive in part because of end-to-end encryption which means that only the messenger and the individual recipient or group can see text messages, photos and videos.

Other apps, such as Signal (used by US National Security Agency whistleblower Ed Snowden) and Telegram, offer encrypted messaging services. Confide, another service, has reportedly been used by some staff in the White House.

Encryption is particularly appealing to those working in the political world, as a way of leaking stories to the press and forging conspiratorial cliques, as well as the more prosaic matter of communicating business information to colleagues. But messaging services are popular beyond politics and in all manner of workplaces.

WHAT ARE THE BOUNDARIES?

One study of emergency surgical teams using WhatsApp found chat groups flattened the hierarchy, allowing junior trainees to access more experienced clinicians, who provided support and supervision. Separate research, published in the Journal of Information Technology Education, that studied WhatsApp as a communication tool between teachers and students found the app enhanced relationships.

There are many benefits, says André Spicer, professor of organisational behaviour at the Cass Business School at City, University of London. “It makes communication less costly and more transparent.”

However, it could overwhelm people by adding another information stream employees need to check, further blurring the line between home and the office. Slack, an alternative to emails, is encouraged by many employers as a secure way of communicating, and in the process has become yet another work-related communication system to monitor.

Boundaries are important. Ms Keegan says she would never send WhatsApp messages to her office over the weekend as “it would oblige [the team] to respond. As a manager you have to be careful how you use it.” The informality of such messaging services may prove more intrusive than email.

Ms Keegan’s husband, Michael Keegan, UK & Ireland chairman of Fujitsu, the Japanese IT equipment and services company, takes a different approach. “I would never send junior staff WhatsApp messages over the weekend but with a senior staff member I might.”

That informality is a double-edged sword. As the schools noted, teachers came up against “foul language and behaviour”. That is hardly restricted to teenagers — it is also a problem with workers.

Recently, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), the professional body for HR managers, asked practitioners about the impact of WhatsApp groups — both formal and those set up for advice, socialising and gossip — on the corporate culture. Twenty-six per cent of respondents thought they enhanced the workplace, encouraging collaboration and providing an opportunity for mutual support.

Others were pessimistic — 40 per cent believed they undermined corporate culture. Said one anonymous HR manager: “[It] can be a great benefit for employees as long as [it is] used for the correct reason. It can, however, be too easy for people to act inappropriately and find themselves in breach of policies without realising the impact of their behaviour.”

Another respondent was more blunt. “WhatsApp is primarily used for gossiping and bitching. I work in an office where the millennials sit there all day on WhatsApp, messaging each other and sniggering like school children.”

And another described it as a “tool for bullying”, used to exclude people from post-work drinks, or leaving colleagues out of groups.

ELECTRONIC TRACE

David D’Souza, the head of engagement and London for CIPD, is sanguine about WhatsApp, seeing it as an extension of water cooler chat.

“People have always criticised their employer [and colleagues] but before it happened in the pub.” Technology merely reflects the corporate culture, he says. “WhatsApp by itself doesn’t bully colleagues.”

Yet secure and informal messaging services such as WhatsApp lure employees into committing off-the-cuff remarks to text.

Unlike after-work drinks, there is a record of a conversation that can easily be passed to others, for example if messages are forwarded. Much rests on trust, says Ms Keegan.

“You are lulled into a sense of security. What happens on tour, stays on tour is the implicit contract.”

Yet information may be leaked by accident rather than intent, as was the case with the Labour MP who accidentally sent a mocking message to the wrong group.

Simon Kerr-Davis, employment counsel at Linklaters, the law firm, notes that using WhatsApp on a work phone provides ample scope for breaching employer guidelines by causing offence to the recipient of a message, reputational damage to an employer or releasing confidential information. Over time, workers have come to realise the risks of email, and have changed how they use it at work.

But while employees get used to the likes of WhatsApp, they mistakenly think it is a temporary form of communication. Similarly, people are used to knowing that a work laptop belongs to their employer, but do not necessarily feel that their phone does.

“If the device is owned by the employer . . . then it is entirely legitimate for the employer to monitor usage, provided it is made clear to the employee that the employer reserves that right.”

Laws differ across the globe — Germany, for example is regarded as the most restrictive regarding data privacy, and employers have limited rights to monitor and review messages sent by employees, even on a work device, says Mr Kerr-Davis.

In the UK, if an employer is clear in its policy, it can “call for the return of the device and access the content in order to investigate any concerns about the use of the device”.

For employees with WhatsApp on work phones, a good rule, says Carole Theriault, infosecurity communications expert at Tick Tock Social, is to think before using work devices or applications for personal use.

“If you want to keep something private from work, keep it entirely off their radar and their systems,” she advises. THE FINANCIAL TIMES

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Emma Jacobs is a features writer for the Financial Times, with a particular focus on workplace trends, business culture and entrepreneurship.