How to manage employees WhatsApp use

WhatsApp is a great communication tool. Millions use it for chatting with friends, vitally important stuff like sharing cat/dog memes and organising our daily lives. However, what about using messaging apps in a work context? It certainly raises some challenges and data protection concerns.

Inappropriate use of messaging apps can, and has, resulted in serious consequences for both employees and employers. WhatsApp is an excellent example of how technology can blur our private and professional lives. It’s easy to see how it happens – it’s just so darn convenient. Not to mention virtually free.

There have been a number of high-profile cases where WhatsApp messages have led to reputational damage, as well as individuals and organisations being penalised. From police officers and firefighters sending racist, sexist and homophobic content in ‘private’ groups, to politicians and civil servants failing to retain or surrender WhatsApp messages to public inquiries. Aggrieved employees have won damages in tribunal cases for being excluded from work-related group chats. Then there was the famous case of former Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, who handed over thousands of sensitive political messages to a journalist he was working with on his autobiography!

This smorgasbord of drama is before data protection comes into play. 26 members of staff at NHS Lanarkshire used a WhatsApp Group on multiple occasions to share patient data; names, phone numbers, addresses, images, videos and screenshots were shared, including sensitive clinical information. Police officers were caught sharing crime scene images. And so on.

These are egregious examples. In others, however, Gen Z can be cut some slack. They live in an era of fast-moving technology and take instant messaging for granted.

The risks are evident. Employers might have limited control over employees setting up their own WhatsApp group, which are routinely private and set up on personal mobiles. But left unchecked? They can lead to the sharing of offensive content, confidential or commercially sensitive information, or can be the cause of a personal data breach.

Furthermore, employers have no control over how messages are then shared to any number of recipients beyond the organisation. In fact, employers might not know a group exists until a problem arises. In the wrong hands, messaging apps can be like the world’s leakiest chain email.

Mitigating the risks

In light of the risks, an outright ban on the use of WhatsApp for work-related matters may seem like a good idea, but in practice in many organisations this is unlikely to be enforceable. So what can employers do to mitigate the risks?

The answer probably lies in raising awareness, educating staff and setting clear boundaries. Clear policy guidelines on the use of messaging apps such as WhatsApp can help to prevent something nasty flaring up. In much the same way as you would tell people what is deemed acceptable use for email and internet use in the workplace, you can extend this to WhatsApp. Policy guidelines can clearly set out;

📌 what’s acceptable and unacceptable content

📌 don’t share sensitive company information

📌 don’t share personal information relating to customers, business partners, colleagues and so on

📌 don’t share images of people, especially children or vulnerable people

📌 don’t use WhatsApp to harass or bully other employees

📌 don’t deliberately exclude people from a work-related group chat without a good reason.

📌 the risks & consequences of inappropriate use for those involved

Your policy guidelines can distinguish between different types of group. For example, making it clear a WhatsApp group set up to arrange after-work socialising, be it a sports team or going for drinks, is either work-sanctioned or it isn’t. If it isn’t, the responsibility for the content of the chat lies with the users of that group. A fair, transparent policy is unlikely to be criticised if applied consistently and fairly.

Guidelines can be created with clear examples and case studies which resonate with your staff. There’s no shortage of examples out there – several police officers in the example above were sent to prison. Regularly remind people and consider including an ‘acceptable use of WhatsApp’ input during team training.

Should line managers, as part of their duties, be asked to act as moderators or gatekeepers for such groups? Should the DPO be asked to dip sample them? It might work for some organisations.

You can send a clear warning to staff that a breach of the policy is likely to lead to disciplinary action. You can also warn them, WhatsApp messages can (and have!) been used in evidence in legal disputes and civil litigation. They might think what they are doing is private, but it might turn out not be.

Given its huge popularity, there’s little doubt WhatsApp (or similar apps) will continue to be widely used as a simple and cost-effective way of communicating with people in the workplace. But, as with any form of communication, the key is to remain clear, open and transparent about the rules of use to make sure the rights of employees and the data your organisation handles remains protected.