Instant Messaging: The Future of Communication, With Caveats

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The adoption of instant communication in the workplace isn’t all good news. In an era of social sharing, the casual nature of texts in the workplace can put companies at risk. We’ve all read the stories of managers cursing out employees for some minor infraction or flirting in a way that makes someone uncomfortable, only to have those conversations go viral and result in someone getting fired.

“There is a fine line between casual conversations and inappropriate content, and instant messaging makes that line very easy to cross,” StratEx’s Ochstein said. It’s rarely intentional. He recalls a recent day at his own company when employees were using Slack to discuss whether the company’s “no-shorts policy” should be abandoned when temperatures rise above 90 degrees. That evolved into a conversation about why female employees were lucky because they can wear skirts, which led to a “guys vs. girls in the workplace” battle. “That’s when the HR team had to get involved and shut it down,” he said. “It was innocent banter, but all of [the] sudden it was going in a direction no one wanted.”

Such scenarios are all too common, particularly when teams work long hours together or are out celebrating a project success. “One person may think a text is funny, where the other thinks it’s inappropriate,” he said. “But once you send it, you can’t get it back.”

The instant nature of these tools also creates legal issues with hourly gig workers. If a manager sends an email at night, it is assumed a contractor will respond the next day, but if they send an instant message the implication is that they expect an instant response. “Does that mean you have to pay them for that time?” Ochstein pondered. “Once you cross that chasm, the legal stuff can get bad.”

That doesn’t mean companies shouldn’t use instant messaging apps to interact with employees, but they should define clear policies for their use. Ochstein advised “over-communicating” to employees about texting protocol and reminding them that anything they say on text is as admissible as any other document. He also urged HR leaders to promote a culture of caution. “Encourage them to pause and think about whether a message could be construed as not respectful,” he said. “If there is any chance it could be construed as rude or not respectful, don’t send it.”



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