Most staff handbooks now have something in them relating to an employee’s use of social media like blogging online, posting on forums etc. Most employers now have computer use policies, which extend to things like what internet sites people are browsing and how they use email. Most organisations have anti-bullying and harassment policies, and policies relating to dignity at work. One area that has the potential to fall into the gaps that might exist between these policies, is the increasing use of message apps to communicate in the workplace. The most popular being WhatsApp and others like Messenger, Slacker and WeChat.

One of the downfalls of systems that allow instantaneous communication between colleagues is that these forms of messaging are seen as less formal than traditional modes of communication, and there is a risk that people commit things to writing that they wouldn’t put in a letter or in an email. The opportunity for bullying and inappropriate language and behaviour is rife – people seem to be prepared to say things in writing that perhaps they wouldn’t even say to somebody’s face, and there is also the issue that chatting using these Apps continues outside of working hours, so that if bullying is taking place it’s got the potential to be much more invasive into people’s lives.

If you surveyed your average employee, they would probably regard conversations that they are having using such Apps as ‘private’ and nothing to do with their employer. We’ve had to point out to employees that their use of social media can have an impact on their work, and you have to also remind employees that this is territory as an employer, we have the right to control, particularly in the case where an employer is likely to be found vicariously liable for the acts and admissions of staff towards each other, whether the messages are being sent inside or outside of work time. Section 26 of the Equality Act 2010 relates to harassment where one-person bullies another in relation to a protected characteristic, if they engage in unwanted conduct that has the purpose or effect of violating dignity, or they create an intimidating, hostile, offensive or degrading environment, this is just as applicable to what somebody might do on their private phone than to any other workplace conduct.

I find that training is the most powerful way to get employees to understand this concept, it is a good way for the ‘penny to drop’ and for people to understand what sorts of conduct can be regarded as harassment.

As employers, we are in a difficult position because unless colleagues are prepared to come forward and tell us that inappropriate behaviour is taking place, it can often be very difficult to know what is going on: we tend to require somebody to be prepared to stick their head above the parapet and raise a complaint. They need the ability to vocalise what’s happened to an investigation. Culturally we need to make sure that people feel they can come forward and raise issues. When was the last time a leader in your organisation reminded people of that?

Clearly, we cannot force a member of staff to turn over their private and personal phone to us as part of the investigation but, an employee who doesn’t cooperate is surely going to be regarded as hiding something if they fail to do so? Amending your policies would be a good opportunity to remind people of the topic and why it is important for everyone to have dignity at work.