The potential dangers of instant messaging at work

Bronwyn Tolhurst
May 30, 2018

Employers are embracing instant messaging platforms as a tool towards cultivating an engaging workplace culture which values collaboration and open communication.

When used correctly, instant messaging platforms in the workplace can be a very effective communication tool for employees. Today, staff at many organisations – particularly those with multiple or international sites – often utilise instant messaging platforms, over and above email, to quickly and informally communicate with their fellow employees.

Instant messaging risks for employers

Instant messaging gives the perception that the conversations held or content posted on these platforms are “private” or confidential between the recipients, regardless of their connection to the workplace.

With the use of instant messaging platforms, there is a risk that employees may disregard their employer’s workplace policies or codes of conduct. They may consider that such policies and codes somehow do not apply to “private” conversations between trusted colleagues.

One of the most contentious risks surrounding the use of instant messaging platforms is sexual harassment in the workplace. The informal and quick nature of these platforms can sometimes encourage or facilitate employees to “over-share” or, wittingly or otherwise, engage in conduct that could be breaching the employer’s workplace policies.

It is important, however, to be ever mindful that, as an employer, you can be held vicariously liable for the ‘online’ acts of your employees when utilising the employer’s instant messaging platform.

Responsible use of instant messaging

So, what can you do to encourage the responsible use of your organisation’s instant messaging platform?

1. Adopt or update your Social Media Policy, Acceptable ICT Use Policy and/or Workplace Behaviours Policy to include the acceptable use of instant messaging in your workplace.

2. Define the context and use of instant messaging platforms in your workplace. Do employees utilise these tools for personal or business use? If so, make sure you have protocols in place.

3. Define the roles and responsibilities of employees in using the instant messaging platforms, including any expectations around workplace behaviours, respect for others or adherence to any relevant policies or codes of conduct. Ensure employees receive training in relation to the above mentioned policies and that this training is revisited on a regular basis.

4. Ensure that managers, supervisors and human resource professionals receive training in how to fairly act on complaints and handle what can be difficult conversations when things go wrong.

5. Continually monitor and review conduct online and ensure records of conversations are retained on the system.

6. Address any perceived or known breaches of policy as part of your complaints handling procedure.

There is no doubt that instant messaging can be an effective communication tool – however, employers should be managing the risks associated with this platform in the same way as every other IT, communications and social media platform.

We understand that sometimes there is a perception that policies, procedures and professional conduct training somehow denounce workplace fun. Not at all. Any workplace should be able to include healthy ways of debriefing, and employees being able to engage socially with other. But this is so long as it is ‘fun’ for everyone, and means that it should be clear that any communication needs to be respectful, inclusive and professional. A good rule of thumb: it’s only fun if everyone is laughing (genuinely). Therefore, we recommend that employers review their policies for tone and fairness, and promote what is seen to be acceptable at work.


About Bronwyn Tolhurst

Bronwyn Tolhust - WorklogicBronwyn Tolhurst brings extensive, senior human resource and workplace relations experience to Worklogic’s clients, gained working at local government, employee associations and not-for-profits. She enjoys resolving workplace challenges by taking into account policy, industrial and cultural influences.

If you need help to review your policies relating to instant messaging or are concerned that an employee may be acting inappropriately via IM in you workplace, then please do contact us for an obligation-free, confidential discussion.

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