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Monday, June 27, 2022

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The work WhatsApp messages that can land you in hot water

Published Jun 9, 2022


As South Africans moved towards remote work in 2020, WhatsApp was perfectly positioned to fill the gap of instant messaging and remote communication.

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An overwhelming majority of South Africans already used the service for personal messaging, and WhatsApp had been pushing for integration of new business accounts.

While employers and employees were figuring out Zoom or Google Meet, WhatsApp groups quickly became one of the most popular ways for businesses to organise and communicate with staff.

However, the muddied water of personal and work messaging on the same platform can lead to problems for both employees and employers.

The Basic Conditions of Employment Act entitles workers to a rest period of 12 consecutive hours daily and 36 hours weekly.

During this time, both employees and employers should be free from work obligations and communication.

However with our phones always in reach, professional and personal boundaries tend to blur.

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A WhatsApp sent after hours can be useful to prepare for the next day or to make sure something important isn’t forgotten, but labour law is clear that you cannot expect 24-hour availability.

This blurring of lines can make it easy to forget that our digital communication is subject to many of the same laws that govern speech.

This was clarified was by the Cybercrimes Act of 2020, which makes clear that threats to people and property through digital messaging is an offence.

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Individuals are also still subject to hate speech laws and the appropriate communication policies of the their employer.

WhatsApp is a far cry from in-person conversation, and despite instant messaging being a mainstay of society for years we have yet to settle into any real agreed upon norms.

Digital messages keep an often permanent record, and careless WhatsApps aren’t as easy to forget or gloss over as fleeting verbal comments.

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And even with swift use of the delete feature, it’ll be a hard time explaining that private picture you accidentally posted to the work group in the middle of the night.

Humans really weren’t made to communicate over text, and it can be very difficult to relay or interpret tone with messaging unless you already know the person well. Emojis can really only do so much – and aren’t a great defence when HR is called in.

It’s probably best to keep the staff banter to a minimum.

Digital communication also opens up new liabilities for employers.

Businesses do not want to be party to any illegal activity, even if it happens on a third-party platform like WhatsApp. This includes things like individuals encouraging piracy and sharing torrent links, or even a WhatsApp group being used as a platform for revenge pornography – which the 2020 Cybercrimes Act mentions specifically.

Messaging also opens up all new avenues for leaks and confidentiality confusion around personal details and private business information.