If you suspect that employees are using their personal networks, rather than those provided by the company, to have business-sensitive discussions, you’re probably right – more than half of us are at it. How do you investigate who’s doing it and what their motives are – and then encourage them to use official IC channels?

5th July 2018

It’s difficult to stop employees embracing personal tools. They will go where they need to in order to do their business.

IAN HOOK, general manager for Europe, Smarsh

We’ve all heard the message when we’ve phoned a customer service line: calls may be recorded for training and quality purposes.

Businesses keep an eye on such conversations to better understand customers’ queries and improve their service, and so that discussions are documented in the event of a dispute.

It’s common sense for organisations to protect themselves by using tools that save exchanges of business information so that there is no uncertainty over what has been agreed. When employees use personal and unmonitored accounts to talk to colleagues or customers about products, projects or planning, there’s the potential for good ideas and key information to either be missed by decision-makers or end up in the wrong inbox.

These days, our social networks intrude on our work time; chat apps are a click away on our smartphones, which are always at hand. And with colleagues becoming friends and, therefore, part of our personal directories, the distinction between an enterprise social network (ESN) and personal channels becomes a little hazy.

Why log out of Facebook to log in to Workplace by Facebook to send a quick business query to a colleague in both contact books?

Unless employees understand the liabilities of deviating from formal channels, why would it matter to them?

The convenience of shadow comms

The surge in employees using shadow communications – tools not officially provided by an organisation, but which an employee uses for business talk – is down to a combination of factors: employees wanting to discuss sensitive topics off the record; more digital-savvy employees entering the workplace; and, most commonly, convenience.

Rob Liddiard, CEO of retail and hospitality chat app Yapster, believes it’s human nature to pursue the path of least resistance.

“People’s communication habits are mostly formed by their personal lives,” he says. “I talk to my wife in real time by instant messenger. That type of channel feels as natural as using your voice. And colleagues naturally transfer those habits to the workplace.

"If you use your voice to speak all the time, it’s hard to flip to sign language. Corporations need tools close to what colleagues use outside of work.”


Percentage of people who said they use WhatsApp, personal email or external messenger channels for business conversations because it was convenient (13% because official IC channels were poor, 10% because the information was personal or sensitive).
Source: IoIC poll, 2018

Impact on productivity

Work and personal life have blurred. Managers have realised employees can be more productive if given the option to work from home or at hours that suit them and, therefore, on personal devices.

All this means employees’ Facebook and instant messenger accounts and text app of choice are at their fingertips throughout the working day. Firing up a business conversation on a personal platform is easy. You may only save yourself half a minute by not logging in to an intranet, but when you are on a deadline, who wouldn’t want to save those precious seconds?

The speed with which many solutions can be downloaded also allows teams to adopt platforms that are not part of the company’s official channel mix. Any function in your business can set up Slack, for instance, within a few clicks and without troubling the IT or internal comms departments.


Meeting customer demands

In some industries, the trend towards using shadow communications carries even greater risk – and the conversations are not always employee-to-employee.

Cloud-based archiving-solutions provider Smarsh works primarily in heavily regulated spaces, typically the finance sector, where there is a requirement to record and supervise conversations, and store them for several years, in compliance with Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) requirements.

Ian Hook, Smarsh’s general manager for Europe, says it’s a world where customers are increasingly demanding to engage with their banks and advisers through instant messaging and social media channels, which can’t be easily observed.

“Millennials are driving the change to adopting chat-based and social communications,” says Ian. “In certain sectors, customers are dragging businesses to embrace them. We see a lot of organisations reaching out to customers through the likes of Instagram.”

Competing with poor official channels

Jonathan Phillips, co-founder of digital consultancy Lithos Partners, believes official channels are often not up to scratch.

“IT and comms teams are pressured in terms of resources and budgets, and often the tools meet the bare minimum requirements, rather than the full suite that employees need,” he says.

“It’s a lazy assumption that employees choose shadow comms because they can’t get what they need from IT, but there’s a degree of truth in it. All of the traditional tools we use at work – emails, ESNs or chat areas of some kind – can be clumsy. They’re just not as easy to use as tapping a message on your phone and hitting ‘Send’.”

In research by Yapster, almost two-thirds of 18–34-year-olds said they use personal messaging services for work. But Jonathan believes every generation of employee is doing it.

“I recently interviewed members of the board of a construction company and three-quarters of them were using WhatsApp to communicate with their teams – and they are not young or particularly digital-savvy people. In fact, they are almost the complete opposite of our definition of millennials.”

When the higher echelons of a company are using shadow comms to discuss business developments, an internal communicator has a key role to educate staff on why this might not be a good idea from a security point of view. This might not be a simple task, says Jonathan.

“I’ve heard candidly of organisations actively wanting to keep stuff off company channels. I do believe there are lots of people who just don’t understand why shadow communications can’t be used.”

Sharing sensitive information

Most shadow discussions are relatively harmless and unlikely to expose the business. But if the use of shadow comms becomes more habitual than the occasional “I’m running late”-type message, there is the potential for employees’ engagement in, and need for, official channels to dip.

Often the issue is not with the message itself, but who is listening – and who isn’t able to be a part of the exchange.

“You might set up a WhatsApp group, but who is managing your audience?” asks Jonathan. “I was talking with a client who uses a WhatsApp group for business and when I asked him to check who was included, he discovered a former employee who had moved to a competitor company was still in it and reading the information everyone was sharing.”

When conversations containing sensitive or commercial information are conducted on proper channels, the organisation can access, trace, delete or refer back to it if necessary. On WhatsApp, where is it? How far beyond the group is a screengrab circulating?

On the flip side, there are users who might not want to be included. When colleagues are added to a WhatsApp group, often without giving consent, phone numbers are on display, and can be used outside of the group by one person to harass another, as part of unrequited affection, for instance.

“An employee joins a group to talk about something innocent, and should be able to decide to what degree they get involved,” says Rob Liddiard. “But when they are no longer in a safe space, they don’t feel empowered. They feel targeted instead.

“Employers have a duty of care to employees, and it’s safer to have managers who encourage official channels.”

The problem isn’t just with harmful behaviour or sensitive information. Internal communicators want to recognise positive behaviour and share it with the wider workforce – something that’s easy to do by email or on an enterprise social network.

WhatsApp and its ilk can be a comfortable bubble to those who like to communicate inside work the same way they chat outside, but they can also be places where requests, concerns and good ideas get lost.


Percentage of British employees who use some kind of personal electronic messaging for work purposes; the figure is 64% among 18–34-year-olds.
Source: Yapster, 2017

Uncovering shadow comms in your team

How do managers find out in the first place if shadow conversations are taking place? Rob suggests a “reverse audit” is required.

“Communication audits often look for activity – but look where there is no activity on your comms channels and you can infer that there is an alternative in its place,” he says. “Ask, in a non-judgmental way how they are communicating. It might be a cohort of people who don’t feel official channels represent them – or there might be more nefarious reasons. There might be some conversations that are dangerous to society – for example, financial traders having underhand conversations.”

With a better understanding of the channels that work best for employees, communicators can make a case to senior leaders to install the right tool.

If employees are well informed of the security issues of shadow comms channels – when they can be used for business conversations, and when they shouldn’t – it might not be necessary to make a big deal of trying to restrict their usage, something which, Ian Hook advises, “is hard to do without substantial IT effort and an inordinate amount of money”. In fact, there are supervision tools that enable employees to continue to use their personal channels and operate in line with regulatory or governance policies.

Smarsh has developed software that allows regulated firms to continue using these emerging comms channels, but gives executives peace of mind. It integrates with social media platforms and records those conversations.

“You don’t need to say no to shadow comms,” says Ian. “We have a way of capturing conversations on Facebook, Instagram or LinkedIn, for instance, and helping regulated organisations meet their compliance risk objectives.”


Technology and policy combined

Ian is quick to advise that technology alone can never be the entire solution.

“Technology is an enabler, but policy plays an important part,” he says. “Encourage staff to have conversations on business channels, but also make people aware that you are recording selected channels. It’s difficult to stop employees embracing personal
tools. They will go where they need to in order to do their business.”

That’s true for many sectors where large groups of employees do not have access to the same channels as their office-based colleagues. In the hospitality sector, for example, where discussions around shift changes and flexible hours are part and parcel of daily working life, frontline employees need to be part of those conversations, but often don’t have access to company emails or the intranet.

Yapster is a product aimed particularly at the retail and hospitality sector that echoes typical shadow comms. It’s easy to manage, has a news feed and enables users to send instant one-to-one or group messages.

“The experience is reminiscent of WhatsApp and consumer tools,” explains Rob Liddiard, “but you can navigate the whole corporation through a directory.
We are interested in building an ecosystem.”

Easing employees in to the new system

Whatever tool you invest in, communicators need to clearly explain why they are moving to a new system – and trying to steer employees away from shadow communications, at least as a primary channel.

This includes keeping your policies up to date with the evolution of these tools, says Jonathan Phillips: “It’s likely that if you wrote a social media or data policy three years ago, it won’t mention WhatsApp groups.”

Rob advises: “Tell employees that you understand they have a need for mobile comms, but that you have an obligation to protect your data – and their data – and that you want them to have a good employee experience. No one wants their personal devices constantly pinging with work notifications.

"Tell managers that creating WhatsApp groups for work purposes is not the done thing. When that’s mandated, those networks wither away quickly.”

It’s difficult to stop employees embracing personal tools. They will go where they need to in order to do their business.

IAN HOOK, general manager for Europe, Smarsh

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