Instant messaging apps like WhatsApp and Slack are trying to shove traditional emails aside when it comes to professional communication. Naturally, the majority of companies will be integrating both sides into their messaging systems, as email still has a lot to offer.

Although email comes with great features like its lack of cost and more official feel, the incessant modern demands for faster responses and quicker messaging has led to the likes of WhatsApp creeping into workplaces. Now, finding a workplace without a WhatsApp group between employees would be a rare occurrence.

The instant nature of these apps means they can be prone to non work related conversation, especially outside working hours. WhatsApp is used by as many as 84% of young professionals on a daily basis, so access to the workplace group chat out-of-hours will be commonplace.

Why is this messaging potentially harmful?

Instead of being limited to messaging colleagues during working hours, instant messaging gives people the platform to say what they like, when they like, and to whom they like. This might not always be conducive to ‘formal’ or ‘polite’ messages, and people may let an unprofessional side slip out on occasion.

In a survey of HR professionals, 40% of respondents indicated that WhatsApp was detrimental to their working lives. Responses included the following:

  • “WhatsApp is like a viper’s nest”
  • “It is primarily used for gossiping and bitching about other members of staff”
  • “I work in an office where the millennials sit there all day [...] messaging each other and sniggering like schoolchildren”

People Management also describe other, more sinister happenings which occurred via Slack. There was one report of an organisation which discovered that some of its employees had set up private WhatsApp groups to share pornographic and obscene content.

Of course, this example crosses the boundary from unprofessional to illegal use of professional communication apps. These are extreme examples and do not represent most people’s everyday usage.

Simon Rice-Birchall, employment partner at Eversheds Sutherland, makes a great point when trying to explain why some employees behave unprofessionally on instant messaging apps: “You might put something in an email that you probably wouldn’t put in a letter, and so on – the more informal the medium, the more informal you are prepared to be.”

This suggests a more psychological element, where users are more likely to exhibit unprofessional behaviour on a medium which is intrinsically less professional.

Do messaging apps encourage harassment or bullying?

The mere existence of an app cannot provoke bullying. Issues might lie more within a workplace culture, or in how employees are allowed to use instant messaging apps to communicate.

Perhaps communicating with colleagues via WhatsApp, Slack, or any other messaging app is viewed as an extension of ‘water-cooler chat’. Those employees usually engaging in light criticism of another colleague under their breath find their remarks committed to text, risking their being seen by someone else or even being sent to the wrong person.

What can be done to prevent workplace harassment or bullying?

Either the software used, or the manner in which it is used should be considered and handled more carefully by organisations to prevent incidents of workplace harassment or bullying.

WhatsApp could also do more to assist in this situation. Currently, to warn against harassing or insulting messages being sent, they state the following within their terms: “When you share a chat, photo, video, file or voice message with someone else on WhatsApp, they'll have a copy of these messages. They'll have the ability to re-share these messages with others on and off WhatsApp.”

This is all common sense, and shows no active role being taken on their part to reduce the potential for unprofessional behaviour seen on WhatsApp.

WhatsApp and similar messaging apps intrinsically lend themselves to non-professional conversation. If managers and employers allow the use of these apps, there should be an emphasis on creating a digital workspace that is completely separate from personal messages.

Messaging itself is inevitable: it's changed communication forever and is evidently needed. What can be avoided, with careful consideration of the digital environments employees move through, is this messaging being reduced to something harmful.

Photo by AbsolutVision on Unsplash.

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