How to use WhatsApp as a business tool so that everyone doesn't hate you

PwC's Lullu Krugel shares the etiquette she has developed for professional and personal WhatsApp use.

Lullu Krugel, chief economist at PwC shares her views on when WhatsApp communication is OK, and when it really, really isn’t.

Even the most technologically “unsavvy” cannot get away from the various online and cyber chat tools that we are exposed to nowadays. WhatsApp is arguably one of the most popular, with close to 40 million South African users. It is a convenient way of sharing information and enables immediate and expedient communication.

I was a WhatsApp a fan, right up until I received messages from members of my running club WhatsApp group, sharing their latest preparation information for the Comrades at three in the morning. I had no appreciation for being woken up from my blissful sleep in the middle of winter. I left the group. According to my husband (still part of the group), anyone leaving the group creates quite a bit of discussion among the members left behind.

This got me thinking about whether or not there is a polite way to leave a WhatsApp group, the general etiquette for WhatsApp and, in particular, if you use WhatsApp for professional communication, how to keep the work/life boundaries for your own sanity and that of your colleagues and clients.

Some basics that I have thought of and picked up:

If you use WhatsApp for business purposes, be sure that you understand and follow your company’s WhatsApp / Social media and communication policy: After the Financial Conduct Authority in the UK fined a banker for sharing confidential client information, many banks such as Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank have banned WhatsApp (and some other tools) from work phones. However, we often use personal phones for client communication too, and grey areas can easily arise in a conversation.

Your first port of call should always be to understand company policy and to make sure that you apply the same level of scrutiny and levels of protection of confidential information as you would with any other form of communication, if you are in fact allowed to use WhatsApp for client engagements. To be safe, I do not think that business discussions on WhatsApp should go beyond maybe organising a meeting or letting a colleague or client know that you are running a few minutes late.

Always ask if someone is comfortable being contacted via WhatsApp: There are some individuals that view WhatsApp as a social interaction tool only, or that might prefer, for whatever reason, not to be contacted via WhatsApp for business or other purposes. So, don’t assume, just because someone has downloaded the app, they would be comfortable for you to have conversations with them via this tool. Ask first, in particular if you want to share information of any nature.

Now that you have asked, be respectful with the timing of your messages: If you want to send or receive business related messages via WhatsApp, I think it is best to stick to working hours. A cell phone is something that people often use outside of the working environment, and while they might be sending or receiving WhatsApp messages to and from friends and family, they might not appreciate the same coming from a business partner or colleague.

If you would think twice about calling that same person outside of business hours, apply the same rules for sending WhatsApp messages. Of course, there might be exceptions and if someone has requested feedback from you on a matter even outside of business hours, then different rules might apply.

An occasional message later than 17:30 might be acceptable then. In general, however, with all of us being available and accessible 24/7, respect your own time and those of other people and keep business to business hours.

For groups, ask before inviting someone, introduce new group members and stick to the group topics: WhatsApp groups have taken on a life of their own. It might be in everyone’s best interests to establish the rules of the group beforehand. Then, stick to the rules, including the topics of discussion.

In addition, if you have invited someone to a WhatsApp group, do remember to introduce the person to the rest of the group. You certainly would not invite a group of people to your house and not introduce them to one another.

If you are asked a question in the group, do take the time to answer (and use the “reply” option to make it clear that you are responding to a specific comment or question) but refrain from having individual conversations in the group.

Don’t be offensive, ever: It almost seems unbelievable that we still need to remind people of this, but looking at the fallout often seen from insensitive, offensive social media messages, quite a few members of society still don’t understand boundaries. Stay away from anything hateful, racially or ethnically offensive, intimidating, threatening, violent or defamatory.

Over and above it being ethically and morally wrong, you can also get in trouble with the law. The Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development published the draft Cybercrimes and Cybersecurity Bill (B6 – 2017) during March 2017. The bill aims to create offences relating to cyber security like the unlawful securing of access and unlawful acquiring of data for which a convicted person can be imprisoned for five to 10 years. If passed, the bill will also crack down on malicious communications, like WhatsApp messages that incite violence or damage to property, or the distribution of images without consent for which a conviction could result in imprisonment up to three years.

Now, how to leave that group gracefully: There is always the mute option, but at some stage you will still have to deal with the 162 messages from a group. If you have agreed to the group rules and group members are not sticking to their side of the bargain, or if you just feel that you do not want to be part of a group anymore, you are fully within your right to leave the group.

However, do leave a message to say that you are leaving group, but that you will stay in touch (if appropriate) and that you still love them (if they are family). Chances are that there might still be some hurt feelings, but at least you have acknowledged the people in the group.
A quick Google search will provide you with options to leave WhatssApp secretly, a bit like “ghosting” as the millennials call it. However, an honest, open message is probably still the best.

But what about the blue tick?

Of course, there is a whole different debate around whether or not you should allow people to see that you have read their WhatsApp messages and how you should react (or not react) to someone that has “seen” a message but has not responded yet.

The short answer is to remember that people have busy lives, that they might well have seen your message, but their three year old just ran into the room with the half-empty paint can that was used to paint the fence a bright red and now they are having a debate about whether or not that will be an appropriate colour for the dining room wall.

In addition, do not expect a response to everything. For example, if you shared something funny, don’t expect a row of laughing emojis every single time. If you do expect a response, ask a question. If the person does not come back, remember they might still be busy with the three year old. Ask again later. They might simply have forgotten. Most of us don’t intend to be rude or disrespectful, we just get caught up in life. Give people the benefit of the doubt.

And finally, always do ask yourself if a phone call might not have been more appropriate, efficient and or personal than the WhatsApp conversation you are having right now. Old fashioned, I know, but I good way to at least keep the human touch.