Bully bosses told to shove Whatsapp work groups

26 June 2016 - 02:00 By NIVASHNI NAIR

South African employees are being held hostage by company WhatsApp groups and demanding bosses who threaten disciplinary action for unanswered messages.

A Durban hairstylist quit after her salon-owner boss continued to send instructions at her convenience - 5am every day - despite staff complaints.
A Durban hairstylist quit after her salon-owner boss continued to send instructions at her convenience - 5am every day - despite staff complaints.
Image: Matthys Moss

Bullying bosses cite participation in group chats as a way to judge "teamwork skills" for performance assessments.

Similar complaints around the abuse of communication in France recently led its government to pass the "right to disconnect" policy, which makes it illegal for employers to expect employees to respond to work e-mails after hours.

Socialist MP Benoît Hamon recently told the BBC: "All the studies show there is far more work-related stress today than there used to be, and that the stress is constant.

story_article_left1

"Employees physically leave the office, but they do not leave their work. They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash - like a dog. The texts, the messages, the e-mails - they colonise the life of the individual to the point where he or she eventually breaks down."

And in South Korea this week, legislators said they were considering a bill prohibiting managers from badgering staff.

In South Africa the situation is less clear-cut.

A Durban hairstylist quit after her salon-owner boss continued to send instructions at her convenience - 5am every day - despite staff complaints.

But lawyers say it is illegal for bosses to demand the attention of their staff around the clock.

Norton Rose Fulbright lawyer Joe Mothibi said an employer couldn't expect an employee to be available at their beck and call 24/7.

"In terms of the Basic Conditions of Employment Act, employees are entitled to rest periods. You can't say I have to be on my WhatsApp answering instructions [during my rest].

"If I am a cleaner in my office and my contract says I work from 8am to 4pm ... I cannot be expected to take instructions outside my core hours unless of course there are emergencies. And why would it be necessary for me to be on a WhatsApp group for instructions to be issued?" Mothibi said.

A Durban public relations practitioner was recently informed that participation in a group was "non-negotiable" after she complained that it had changed from being a platform to discuss work projects to a forum where unprofessional memes were shared, colleagues insulted one another other and supervisors reprimanded staff.

story_article_right2

"It stresses me. I tried to mute it but I then have anxiety because I am afraid to miss a message."

One employee spoke about being woken in the middle of the night to numerous WhatsApp notifications. The employee said it was also common to wake up in the morning to about 100 notifications from the group.

The general manager of a national firm said staff were issued warning letters if they failed to respond to a WhatsApp message or did not follow an instruction sent via the group because the company provided the cellphone and data.

"The terms and conditions of this arrangement are included in their employment contracts," the manager said.

Labour analyst Tony Healy said that if a company provided a cellphone and data to employees, WhatsApp was lawful.

"It would be akin to ordinary e-mail," he said, but added: "These groups are a relatively new development ... I would absolutely recommend these arrangements [are] included in employment contracts."

X