Should Employers Pick Up Slack?

Popular messaging app can increase communication and productivity—and legal concerns

By Caroline A. Pham and Collin D. Cook September 19, 2018
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Slack, a popular business-messaging application, is swiftly changing how employees communicate. In doing so, Slack presents legal issues such as harassment and wage and hour concerns in new contexts. As a result, employers should ensure that employees are using Slack in compliance with the law.

Slack is a cloud-based, team-collaboration tool―an instant-messaging application that allows users to send messages and share files through online conversations. Many businesses have a Slack enterprise account for their employees to communicate. Individuals can also create personal accounts, without company sponsorship. Therefore, even if your business doesn't have a Slack account, you may have teams within your organization using Slack without your knowledge. 

Slack's Flexibility

What's so special about Slack compared to other instant-messaging platforms? Slack aims to provide a messaging platform designed specifically for workplaces rather than for strictly social purposes.

Slack messages and files can be exchanged through one of three forums: one-to-one direct messages, private group channels and public group channels. The channels help users focus on specific matters by separating the messages by topic and department.

Slack integrates with other popular online services such as Dropbox, Google Docs and Stripe; this allows users to consolidate data so they can seamlessly upload and share files.

In addition, Slack messages and files are instantly synced across desktop and mobile applications, so users can communicate at any time on their preferred device through emojis, GIFs, mentions, reactions and videoconference calls, in addition to text messaging.

Potential Workplace Problems

Slack's unprecedented growth has created new ways in which potential employment claims can present themselves, including harassment claims, wage and hour claims, and privacy concerns:

Potential for inappropriate conduct. Because messages are rapidly exchanged in a real-time conversation, users are more likely to send messages without thinking about the impact they may have on the recipient.

The opportunity to use emojis and GIFs facilitates a more playful exchange that can make some employees uncomfortable. As a result, Slack's more casual form of communication can lead to complaints of harassment, discrimination and retaliation.

Wage and hour concerns. The constant connectivity to Slack on an employee's desktop or mobile device may unintentionally give rise to wage and hour claims. For example, if an hourly employee has the Slack application on his or her phone and continues to receive messages after business hours, the employee may claim to have been interrupted by these messages and performed work off the clock just by reading them. 

In addition, if an employee has the Slack application on a personal device but is not required to use the personal device for work purposes, the employee may nonetheless claim that he or she is entitled to reimbursement for using the personal device for work. 

Privacy issues. Because Slack users can communicate through one-to-one direct messages, employees often perceive their messages as private. However, the messages are viewable by the owner or administrator of the account. As a result, employees may feel their privacy has been invaded if they were unaware the messages were viewable by unintended recipients.

Policy Considerations

If you decide that Slack is inappropriate for your business, make sure you have written policies to inform employees that your business does not permit the download or use of Slack in the workplace. Even if your business does not have an enterprise account, the policy should advise employees that personal Slack accounts are not to be used on company-owned devices during working hours.

If you already have Slack in your workplace or intend to set up an enterprise account for your employees, consider the following best practices:

Review your enterprise plan and account settings. As the owner or administrator of an enterprise account, review your enterprise account settings and take advantage of your ability to customize the workspace settings for employees. For example, an administrator can manage which individuals have the authority to create a channel and what channels are shared. An administrator also can stop the sharing of certain channels.

Update your anti-harassment, time-keeping and privacy policies. Employees should be informed that the anti-harassment policy applies to the use of desktop and mobile devices, including the Slack app, and they should understand that even direct messages and private channels are viewable by the company at any time.

Time-keeping policies should specify the method by which employees are expected to clock in and out and submit requests for time off. Hourly employees should be informed that they are not permitted to use Slack during nonbusiness hours for work purposes. In addition, employees who are not required to use their personal devices for work should understand that they are not required to use Slack through their personal devices. 

Train employees on the appropriate uses of Slack. Train your employees and supervisors on the appropriate uses of Slack in the workplace. Employees should be advised that Slack should be used only for work-related purposes and that inappropriate comments are prohibited. Supervisors should be trained on Slack's capabilities and cautioned on the potential issues that may arise. 

If used appropriately, Slack can create a more efficient and advanced business environment where employees can communicate and interact easily. However, be cognizant of the various ways that traditional employment issues can arise through such popular technology, and implement best practices to address them.

Caroline A. Pham and Collin D. Cook are attorneys with Fisher Phillips in San Francisco.

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