The Problem with WhatsApp Groups for Work

Photograph of Jenefer Livings, Founder of Silk Helix Ltd
28 February 2023
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WhatsApp is a convenient tool for work groups, most people already have it on their phone, are familiar with using it and it’s free to use. Whilst all that is true, we’re seeing a number of workplace disputes and grievances coming from WhatsApp groups, particularly when used on personal devices.

1. WhatsApp is Personal, you can’t turn it off

Most people are using WhatsApp for personal reasons, which means it’s an App they open in their own time outside of work. It is true that notifications can be turned off for particular groups either permanently or for a number of hours, however, when you open WhatsApp you still see the little numbers indicating unread messages. The result is, never truly being able to switch off and set a boundary of not engaging in work communications. This type of boundary is important for maintaining a healthy work life balance, taking time out and not thinking about work is crucial for employee wellbeing.

Removing the line between work and home increases the likelihood of burnout, which will increase absence and we’ve seen people resigning as a result.

2. Sharing Private Information (including Phone Numbers)

WhatsApp relies on phone numbers as identifiers, therefore everyone in the group has each other’s personal phone number. Anyone can add someone to a WhatsApp group without their consent, therefore sharing private information. If you are using WhatsApp groups, at an absolute minimum written consent to add the person and therefore share their telephone number should be gained. Once the phone number is released into the group access to that number cannot be revoked, even if the person leaves the group, a message will remain informing the group of the telephone number that has left.

We have dealt with grievances where individuals have used numbers gained from WhatsApp groups to start private conversations or other groups with colleagues who do not want to receive those messages. Prior to WhatsApp anyone not wanting to have contact from colleagues outside of work would simply not share their phone number. In this situation the employer is responsible for their actions of individual employees.

3. Company Information being Stored on Private Devices

WhatsApp stores the messages sent and received on each individual device. When WhatsApp groups are being used to share and discuss sensitive information the result is the business losing control of that information. When someone leaves the company you can remove them from the group but you cannot revoke their access to information that was shared with them whilst they were in the group, this remains on their device for them to forward or share as they wish.

4. Potential GDPR Breaches

Organisations are required to maintain adequate controls over all personal data being shared, this includes knowing what is being shared, by who and where it is stored. It’s very easy for groups of employees to set up “unofficial” WhatsApp groups and share information. Information shared via WhatsApp may also be subject to disclosure should a subject access request be received.

5. Lack of History

As a practical issue for new starters, when they are invited to join a group they do not get access to any history. This means that the benefits of using chat systems to share information in a way that it can be accessed in future is lost.

What are the alternatives to WhatsApp?

Providing people with mobile phones for work purposes that can be switched off when not at work and will be returned when someone leaves is one way of using WhatsApp without the issues detailed above. There may still be some issues with WhatsApp terms and conditions therefore we do recommend checking those.

A better option would be to use another service for instant messaging such as Slack, Microsoft Teams or Google Chat. All of these are in the control of the employer, they allow multiple channels to be set up so the right people can be in the right groups and conversations can be kept organised. Work email accounts are used so there is no requirement to share personal phone numbers, giving individuals the choice as to whether to have these Apps on their personal phones or control over not accessing them when not working.

Whilst there is a cost to the alternatives, compliance with GDPR, keeping your company secrets in your control and encouraging a healthy work boundary are all benefits worthy of the cost. If your business is already using Microsoft or Google then these tools are included in the price, there really is no reason to use WhatsApp on top.

If you want space for social chats (and we think this is a good idea) then set up a social group within whichever instant messaging system you’re using. Yes, it is likely small groups of colleagues will set up WhatsApp groups to chat away from work, this will be where friendships have developed and people have chosen to share their telephone numbers.

A note to be aware of, employers may still be responsible if for example bullying or harassment happens within WhatsApp even if you’re not using it as an official method of communication. Take any grievance or complaint raised seriously and investigate it. The same applies whichever method of communication is used, however, in our experiences these types of complaints are more common when WhatsApp is encouraged as a business tool.

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