WhatsApp became a household brand when the instant messaging platform reached 1.5 billion users worldwide in January 2018. It is no surprise that for some time now employers have seen the benefit of using this app as a preferred communication platform with and among employees. While instant messaging with individuals or larger audiences in ‘group chats’ has many advantages, it does come with a word of warning. Here are some of the pitfalls that employers must heed:
- Employees are always on call
In the modern workspace, ‘being at work’ no longer implies your presence at the office. The modern workspace allows you to send a quick voice note or text to employees at any time of the day and employees are jolted into work-mode, regardless of their schedule. While this is convenient, it is in no way fair.
The Basic Conditions of Employment Act (BCEA) dictates a daily rest period of 12 consecutive hours and a weekly rest period of 36 consecutive hours, which must include Sunday, unless otherwise agreed. Your WhatsApp message interrupted that consecutive rest period of the employee. While most managers respect this to a large extent, it can be problematic when the communication is between colleagues. Unless it is an urgent matter that cannot be delayed, staff should refrain from this practice and employers are urged to remind staff of this pro-actively rather than reactively as reprimand after the fact. The exception to this would be urgent or necessary information which cannot wait until ordinary working hours – convenience does not qualify as either.
- Work Groups
Many companies have WhatsApp groups set up either for the entire business or per department. This is in most cases created with the intent to simultaneously distribute important information to a group of people to whom the information is relevant. If not moderated, these groups may transition into a social sphere where jokes and interesting facts are shared – to the amusement of some and often to the annoyance of most. Especially in large groups, this can have a detrimental effect. It becomes almost impossible to keep track of what was said, by whom, and to what degree of importance as it is effectively drowned out by the noise and incessant replies of ‘noted’ and ‘LOL’.
On the flip side, some view this banter as good for morale, camaraderie, and cohesion. It has been suggested that it also provides managers some insight into general morale and effectively tests ‘the temperature of the room’ with their teams. It has even been suggested that this can be a tool whereby managers can gauge whether an employee is a “team player” based on their involvement in the group. This freedom of expression and apparent informality of the environment may easily be overstepped and translate into real insolence and grievances among employees. Most companies adopt a semi-rigid policy with some allowance so as to avoid a dictatorial stance.
Regardless of how rigidly the group is administered, there should be a policy in place as to what is acceptable on the particular group and what is not – especially where there is a large audience.
As with any right there is a reciprocal duty – the South African Labour Guide lists the following general rights for employees and employers:
- Not to be unfairly dismissed or discriminated against.
- To be provided with appropriate resources and equipment.
- To have safe working conditions.
- To receive the agreed remuneration on the agreed date and time.
- To receive fair labour practices.
- To be treated with dignity and respect.
- To non-victimisation in claiming rights and using procedures.
- To leave benefits and other basic conditions of employment as stipulated in the BCEA.
- To expect employees to render the agreed services on the agreed days and times.
- To expect employees to perform under his authorisation.
- To carry out all work instructions and obey all reasonable and lawful instructions issued.
- To expect employees to display good behaviour in the workplace (to comply with company policy and procedure, and to comply with company Disciplinary Code and Procedure, and to behave in the workplace in a manner acceptable in the norms of society).
- To expect employees to act in good faith, be loyal, and have the best interests of the employer at heart at all times.
- To expect employees to follow workplace rules, company policies and procedures and work performance standards.
- To expect employees to strive honestly toward work objectives, and to expect employees to adhere to product specifications and quality standards.
- To expect employees to use the employer’s prescribed resources and methods.
- To expect employees to report to him any dishonest or unlawful practices in the workplace, including any breaches of company policies and procedures.
Where an employer can show utility and a genuine purpose to the group, employees can be expected to adhere to the company’s WhatsApp Policy as a reasonable and lawful instruction during ordinary working hours. This is in line with the status of email correspondence which is now widely accepted and practiced. It is especially true where the company either provides the device and data or makes a contribution towards cellphone costs as part of the remuneration package. The company cannot demand responses or actioning of instructions outside of working hours and will certainly not be in a position to discipline an employee for not responding timeously to a message that could otherwise have been conveyed during office hours. The content of the communication will, however, be a strong indicator of whether it could possibly be seen as urgent and necessary.
- Policy And Procedure
It is highly recommended that a policy is put in place to govern the usage of the group and the following are some pointers as to what such rules may look like, albeit that most should be common sense:
- State whether or not it is a requirement to be on the group for operational reasons and if you are not then it will be at your own peril should lawful instructions so communicated not be adhered to.
- Post your message in one single text message, don’t post every word or sentence in a new message.
- Limit the number of participants to those whom the group is targeted at and keep the participants to directly affected employees.
- Do not have one-on-one conversations in the group. Switch to private messages.
- Do not post in any group between 19:00 and 07:00 unless it is an all-out emergency.
- If a message asks for a positive response like “who is available”, don’t reply in the negative. Only say if you are able to attend to what is required.
- If someone asks a question and you don’t know the answer don’t respond with “I don’t know”. Just wait for someone who knows the answer to reply. If no answer is forthcoming it would be polite to make enquiries with those close by so as to assist the requestor.
- Don’t send “thank you” messages unless circumstances dictate it appropriate. If you feel gratitude towards someone – tell them in a private message. The group does not exist to inflate your employer’s opinion of you or of your colleague.
- No arguing and heated opinions will be allowed. Any post that includes racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, ethnically divisive remarks or any other topic that offends and disturbs the fragile tranquillity of the workplace should be avoided. This may lead to disciplinary action being taken.
- Never use a group to berate someone else or air grievances. If you have an issue address it with the relevant person or management directly.
- Don’t send data-insensitive messages.
- Employees should avoid discussing details of a sensitive crisis, which the employer is still resolving.
- “Mute” is allowed on your WhatsApp group after hours (unless you’re part of an emergency response group).
- Ask yourself these 3 questionsbefore you post:
- Is this relevant?
- Is this necessary?
- Is this a good time to post?
The employer should tailor the above list, which is included for illustration purposes only, to their respective business and target audience as some may not be appropriate or necessary.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Charl Vollgraaff obtained his LLB degree from the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) in Port Elizabeth in 2008. He then commenced practical training through Legal Education & Development at NMMU. During this time he received a Lexis Nexis Award for Best Performance Nationally. After completing his articles at a prominent law firm in Port Elizabeth he was admitted as an Attorney in 2010. He practised as a Civil Litigation and Commercial Attorney for 6 years post admission before joining SEESA Labour in 2016 at our Port Elizabeth office.