The working world of WhatsApp, and why you should worry
WhatsApp is so handy, so useful. You can quickly sort out problems and manage people from afar. You can also create problems and tear people apart.
There have been plenty of stories around how employees have misbehaved on social media. How photos of them on Facebook have lost them a job or a promotion. Now the stories are emerging about WhatsApp. Yes, this is a smart and efficient way of communicating with multiple people across multiple devices and geographies and time zones. Yes, it is immediate and easy to use and accessible to most. But it is also a forum that’s open to abuse and misconceptions. And conversations can be subject to the conditions of a number of different South African regulations and laws.
“There are two issues to consider when opening up the business to WhatsApp communication,” says Nicol Myburgh, Head: CRS Technologies HCM Business Unit. “On one hand, you need to consider the legislation and regulations that can impact these communications, and on the other are the rules your company implements around what can and cannot be said on this platform.”
The Basic Conditions of Employment Act 75 of 1997 clearly states that an employee is not allowed to work for more than 45 ordinary working hours a week, and is allowed to have a daily rest period of 12 consecutive hours per day, with a weekly rest period of 36 hours that includes Sunday. Now, this means that if employees are being contacted outside of office hours and you’re expecting them to respond to those messages, then you are in direct contravention of this regulation. At the same time, if employees refuse to respond to these messages until they are back at work, they are entitled to do so.
“If an employee doesn’t respond, that’s their decision. The business can’t force them to respond and honestly, managers shouldn’t be sending WhatsApp messages outside of normal hours in the first place,” says Myburgh. “It’s also important to consider the content of WhatsApp messages. You need to create a very clear internal code of good practice within the company that unpacks behaviour, language, what’s considered offensive, and security.”
People can take messages personally, even if they are not meant that way or if they were a joke. What’s funny for one person may be hugely offensive for another. If there is an altercation like this, both the employee and the business become liable. This means that business WhatsApp channels have to be meticulously managed with incredibly tight rules around conduct and behaviour. Anything can be construed as harassment, and people have become increasingly sensitive thanks to the last two years of intense mental and physical complexity.
“The Labour Law is all about the balance of probabilities,” says Myburgh. “If someone makes an accusation and there are numerous factors backing up their claim, then the accusation will gain merit. It can make for a scary online world where people are too scared to be themselves, but if you create smart rules and a culture of respect and understanding, then you can derive value from channels like WhatsApp while bypassing the risks.”
The important take-home considerations for any company using WhatsApp for business communication are simple: don’t expect employees to use it outside of working hours, make communication times reasonable, don’t penalise someone who won’t reply at all hours of the night and day, and protect your employees.