Employee WhatsApp groups: a safe place to sound off or an extension of work?

Teachers were exposed by the BBC using poo emojis to describe vulnerable pupils in a WhatsApp chat. People Management weighs up the risks of using group messages with colleagues

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WhatsApp messaging is becoming increasingly popular in the workplace as a way for colleagues to communicate with each other. However, it can present its own set of challenges, as illustrated by teachers being caught swearing and using poo emojis on the messaging service to criticise vulnerable students.

The story recently made headlines, highlighting the blurring of lines between the use of WhatsApp for personal communications, interactions between colleagues and business purposes. 

It comes after the notion that it is private was thrown into doubt when Boris Johnson, other MPs and civil servants were ordered to submit WhatsApp communications between January 2020 and February 2022 to the official Covid-19 inquiry. 

And earlier this month, former Met Police officer Michael Chadwell was found guilty of sending an insulting racial message in a WhatsApp group of former Met officers. 

So what role – if any – does it really play in the workplace?

The messages at Aberdeenshire schools

Last week (23 November), BBC Scotland News learned of communications between Aberdeenshire school teachers that featured disrespectful exchanges about children and parents.

The existence of the chats was first revealed last year, but the parents of the youngest affected were not informed. 

According to the BBC, in one exchange, a teacher referred to a student with additional support needs as a "complete little" and then used a four-letter swear word, prompting them to express their reservations about teaching the student again, with one teacher saying: "Let's praise the badly behaved children."

"I understand why you're fizzing," one teacher replied, while another added: "They're a bunch of disrespectful [poo emoji]." 

According to the BBC, Aberdeenshire Council conducted an internal investigation into the WhatsApp group and elected not to notify the parents about the messages at the time of the first complaint since the exchanges did not trigger any child protection concerns.

Laurence Findlay, director of education and children’s services at Aberdeenshire Council, told the BBC he was sorry the incident happened and that it was “unprofessional and unfortunate”. 

He added: “As soon as the incident came to light, it was dealt with through the council’s disciplinary procedure. To parents of pupils at Aberdeenshire schools, it’s important you know that the safety of your young people is our top priority.”  

What are the risks of using WhatsApp and other group chats to communicate with colleagues? 

Alan Lewis, partner at Constantine Law, says employees will for the most part be unaware that their WhatsApp messages may have to be disclosed as part of court or employment tribunal proceedings or in reply to a data subject access request. 

He adds that, because of this “lack of awareness” by employees, they may well not express themselves in a professional or considered way.

Lewis says employees may communicate something in a work-related WhatsApp message that may lead to the employer being “vicariously liable for actionable claims”. For example, if the message is discriminatory, concerning one or more of the nine protected characteristics under the Equality Act, the employer may face a compensation claim for discrimination.

This happened at a Watford Tribunal, which ruled that the contents of a group WhatsApp conversation used by employees of Deltec International Courier constituted harassment because it was unwanted conduct that had the effect of violating the dignity of an operations clerk. 

“Employees might make unauthorised disclosures of the employer’s confidential information or that of the employer’s clients via WhatsApp messages and this could cause damage to the employer’s business either directly or by claims from the employer’s clients for breach of confidence,” says Lewis. 

Ben Stocken, founder and managing director of West Peak, tells People Management that, while WhatsApp messages are encrypted end to end, employees should remember that all written, video and audio communications have the potential to be recorded and shared. “This means that sharing sensitive business information in a group chat is unwise and most companies should have a policy that covers online security,” he says. 

“When using a work chat for banter, remember that it only takes a moment for someone to screen grab them and send them to your line manager.

“The old test of never writing anything down that you wouldn’t want read in open court holds true here.”

What can employers do about inappropriate WhatsApp exchanges between workers?

Kate Palmer, HR advice and consultancy director at Peninsula, says companies should consider how they use such platforms in their business and whether communication via these platforms is the best method. “Clear policies and procedures should be in place to help reinforce the organisation’s stance,” she says, adding that rolling out training on appropriate communication and behaviour for staff will also help to minimise these risks. 

According to Steve Herbert, wellbeing and benefits director at Partners&, many employees harbour the “misplaced belief” that instant messaging disappears quickly and does not present a meaningful paper trail, but numerous high-profile media stories highlight that this is not the case. “The simple rule to remember is that if you write and send something less than positive, then there is always the chance that it will be copied and then a possibility that the message will end up being seen by someone other than its intended audience,” he warns.

Herbert says HR experts should therefore look to take ownership of training around social media issues and ensure that all employees fully understand the implications of social media use. “This is particularly important in a more remote working world where many of the face-to-face personal interactions of the pre-pandemic years have moved to written communications via instant messaging options,” he explains. 

Richard Freedman, employment partner at Stephenson Harwood, says: “Given the increasingly blurred line between work and social lives, the content of WhatsApp conversations between employees can be a source of legal and reputational risk to employers.” 

He adds that it is vital employers confirm their position on third-party apps such as WhatsApp and communicate this to their employees and that employers should have “robust” and “comprehensive” policies in place to ensure there is a clear understanding among staff.

Is there a safe place to have conversations with colleagues? 

Samantha Dickinson, partner at Mayo Wynne Baxter, tells People Management that employees should be allowed to safely let off steam through designated HR channels: “A good HR team will be equipped to treat such conversations as confidential and help employees turn their frustration into something more constructive.” 

Dickinson also says healthy dialogue is key to a good workplace but that does not mean that “people have carte blanche to use insulting or degrading language”.

However, Stocken says if workers need to unload they should do so in the “analogue realm – so save edgy banter for a traditional trip to the pub”, adding that they should also think twice about whether it is something that should be said in the first place.

Lewis adds that a safe place for an employee to offload concerns about work would be via an employee assistance programme if one is provided by the employer. “Where an employee wants action to be taken about a matter at work that concerns them, they ought to consider raising a formal grievance,” he says.