Soon after employees at the online invitation site Evite began working from home in March, the company sent staffer s guidelines for navigating remote-office life.
Among them: Don’t let problems fester on Slack.
The popular messaging tool makes instant communication across a company simple—one reason its usage has surged during the pandemic. But when everyone is working virtually, instant-messaging platforms like Slack can become a dumping ground for grievances, passive aggressiveness and other exchanges that are best left for private conversations, says Victor Cho, Evite’s CEO.
“You can’t have large, nuanced conversations over Slack,” Mr. Cho says. “That’s where you just see it going off the rails.” Evite advised its roughly 100 employees to resolve conflicts and complex issues by picking up the phone or scheduling a video meeting, which Mr. Cho says staffers have heeded.
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Many companies have embraced Slack and tools like it as a more efficient way to communicate. In the first weeks after many companies issued work-from-home orders in March, usage soared: On March 25, Slack Technologies Inc. WORK 0.56% said its platform had 12.5 million simultaneous users, up from 10 million two weeks earlier. Microsoft Corp. MSFT -0.61% said in April that the number of daily users on its Teams platform, a competitor to Slack, had grown to 75 million people, more than double the number in early March. The companies haven’t disclosed more recent user numbers.
The technology allows workers to swap information in seconds and respond more quickly than in email with emojis and funny videos, making it easy to set an informal tone. As many offices remain closed, such platforms have become virtual water coolers, one of the primary ways homebound staffers stay in touch with each other.
But the casual nature of many interactions also means some people let their guards down, trash talk and act unprofessionally on the channels, some executives say. Since the pandemic, California employment lawyer Amber Bissell says she has noticed an uptick in harassment complaints related to online communications. Some companies say they have installed tracking tools to police online channels for signs of bullying.
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Ms. Bissell worked on a complaint involving a large Bay Area technology company where Slack was used extensively. Ms. Bissell’s client, a female employee there, had flagged an image posted in a Slack channel by a male colleague as inappropriate. Over the next few days she received Slack messages calling her gendered slurs and “uptight,” while some colleagues sent cruel memes on Slack, Ms. Bissell says.
Messaging platforms have been cited in a number of recent workplace imbroglios. When Bari Weiss, a writer and editor for the New York Times opinion section, resigned in July, she described a hostile culture that played out, in part, online. “My work and my character are openly demeaned on companywide Slack channels where masthead editors regularly weigh in,” she wrote in a resignation letter, noting some colleagues had posted emojis of an ax next to her name in Slack exchanges.
A Times spokeswoman says the newspaper disagreed with Ms. Weiss’s description of events but had taken steps to better spot comments on Slack that violated its guidelines. “We are committed to fostering an environment of honest, searching and empathetic dialogue between colleagues, one where mutual respect is required of all,” says spokeswoman Eileen Murphy. “We take very seriously and appropriately investigate any complaints regarding harassment.”
At the luggage startup Away, co-founder Steph Korey said in December that she would resign as CEO after leaked Slack messages, published in a story in the Verge, showed Ms. Korey openly criticizing employees on the platform. Ms. Korey reversed course a month later, saying the decision to resign had been a mistake and she would keep her job. An Away spokesman declined to comment.
A Slack spokeswoman says the company provides and continues to develop tools for users to control which messages get their attention and let them “reduce noise in Slack,” though if someone is being harassed at work, they should talk to their manager or another company official.
Like other direct messaging services, Slack has created a more casual type of work communication in which messages and jokes can be taken the wrong way, says Alexandra Buechner, an attorney at Hackler Flynn & Associates, who represents employers in employment-law cases. “It’s a slippery slope because it’s so informal,” she says. She suggests companies develop a handbook that includes harassment policies with a section about chat services.
At the same time, many companies are leery of being overly restrictive. Chat applications can serve as one of the main outlets for remote employees to raise concerns or share grievances with each other or management. “You want to avoid passive-aggressive culture, but you want to be transparent, you want to be authentic,” says Jimmy Etheredge, chief executive of North America at consulting giant Accenture ACN 0.17% PLC, which uses Microsoft Teams.
Keith Ferrazzi, an executive coach and author of “Leading Without Authority,” says it is up to bosses to encourage people to share dissent and disagreement, including on chat forums. “The two ways you do that is literally asking for it—and working hard to extract it—but also by allowing greater degrees of collaboration to occur in the workplace so that people’s points of view get out,” he says.
Toxicity in workplace applications can be a sign of deeper problems in a company’s culture and how employees relate to each other, he says. If workers don’t feel they have a voice on serious issues, resentment can build, turning channels ugly.
“This is leadership’s problem,” Mr. Ferrazzi says. “This is a new transparent world; you’re going to have to set a culture of respect and mutual support.”
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