SZ reader Sarah L. asks:
In my company we discuss a lot of things via WhatsApp, for example short-term substitutions or organizational questions. I want to say goodbye to WhatsApp and I have already signed out. Now my boss says that I have to stay in the business WhatsApp group. Apart from the fact that I use my private cell phone for this: can he force me to do it?
Ina Reinsch answers:
Dear Ms. L., Whatsapp is very widespread, and that is what makes business use so attractive: clarify something quickly with colleagues, ask the customer to send a photo of an error message, or postpone appointments – all of this is straightforward and straightforward possible. Whatsapp groups for the entire department enable the boss to reach the employees at any time. This has advantages, but also disadvantages. Because the boundaries between professional and private life, between working hours and after work are often blurred.
After the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into force in 2018, numerous companies decided to prohibit business use of the messenger service. From a data protection point of view, one of the main problems is that entries from the internal address book of the smartphone are transferred to Whatsapp, i.e. transferred to the company’s servers in the USA. According to the GDPR, this would require the consent of each individual concerned from the address book, which of course is not available. There is also the risk that data will be passed on to other Facebook companies.
Because of this and other concerns under data protection law, all federal authorities in Germany, for example, are prohibited from using the messenger service for business purposes. Teachers are also not allowed to communicate with students and parents on business via WhatsApp.
Much is at stake for companies. According to the GDPR, penalties of up to 20 million euros are possible for violations. Whatsapp is therefore unsuitable for business communication among employees. In your specific case, your boss cannot force you to stay in the work WhatsApp group, for example to clarify organizational questions in the department. Because you use your private cell phone for communication. This is unequivocally assigned to your private area of life. The employer has no access to these – even if he has the right to issue instructions. You are not obliged to make your private belongings available for business use.
Your boss may initially encounter incomprehension and resentment, but you can and should say no. Perhaps your supervisor has not yet dealt with the data protection problems in more detail and is focusing entirely on the practical advantages? Perhaps his request runs counter to the company’s clear guidelines? Then maybe now he will realize what is at stake for the company. If your company has actually not yet given any thought to this, this would now be an occasion to do so.
On the other hand, you can follow your convictions. If you do not want to use Whatsapp on your private cell phone because you do not consent to private data being passed on and used, that’s fine. If your boss wants to prescribe a certain communication channel for business use, he must provide the appropriate devices, i.e. purchase business cell phones. Your employer must clarify how Whatsapp can then be used in the company in accordance with data protection regulations. If this is possible, you would have to participate. Because then you no longer run the risk that your private data and that of your private contacts will be used for purposes that you do not approve.
Ina Reinsch is a lawyer, author and speaker in Munich. She mainly deals with the subject of labor law.