An employment law expert has described as “incredibly stupid” and “crazy" an employer communicating with employees on an important workplace issue via WhatsApp emojis.
Dublin-based solicitor Richard Grogan made his comment after it emerged that one joinery manufacturing company at the start of the pandemic in March 2020 communicated with employees on their participation in the Government’s Covid-19 Wage Subsidy Scheme through a WhatsApp thumbs up or thumbs down emoji.
The employer set up the WhatsApp group to determine who wished to avail of the Covid-19 Wage Subsidy Scheme when the Covid-19 pandemic forced the business to shut down on a temporary basis.
An apprentice carpenter who initially replied with a thumbs down emoji was removed from the WhatsApp group and stated that he was informed that if he didn’t wish to participate in the wage subsidy scheme, there would be no job for him when the company re-opened.
Mr Grogan said today: “This beggars belief.”
The apprentice carpenter brought a case to the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC), and WRC adjudicator Thomas O’Driscoll has recommended that the employer pay the apprentice carpenter €1,000 compensation for the unfair manner of his dismissal.
The employee gave the thumbs down emoji because 70pc of his wages would have equated to roughly €160 which was not a viable financial option for him and he has a family for which he has to provide.
In his ruling, Mr O’Driscoll stated: "The Covid-19 lockdown has had an effect on everyone, but it does not absolve employers from the responsibility of dealing in a proper manner when it comes to lay-off and/or potential dismissal.
He added: “Communicating by ‘WhatsApp’ and not issuing a promised formal letter signifies in itself that the employer fell short of what a reasonable employer would have done in the circumstances.”
Mr O’Driscoll stated: "It is clear that the Employer continued to trade and brought back the employees who were willing to accept the EWSS during the Covid-19 crisis. The Employer likewise did not re-employ the employee even though it is clear that had he given the thumbs up on ‘WhatsApp’ in late March 2020, he would have been re-employed and there would be no dispute.”
Mr O’Driscoll found that the employee "had no option under the circumstances but to honestly believe that he had been dismissed and seek other work, which he did so in July 2020”. The employer had denied that a dismissal had taken place.
Commenting on the case, Mr Grogan said on Monday: "It borders on the incredible that an employer would deal with something as important as the EWSS by way of a WhatsApp emoji.”
Mr Grogan said that WhatsApp emojis “have their place in the workplace for questions like ‘who is for coffee?” or ‘does this date suit for our Christmas party?’ but they are not appropriate for issues that deals with terms and conditions”.
He said: "I am flabbergasted that an employer would deal with emojis as a way of dealing with important workplace issues. What would have happened if the employee had replied with a smiley face emoji and tears flowing down?”
Mr Grogan stated: "Employee relations are rarely as black and white as a thumbs-up or thumbs-down emoji. Communicating via emojis is a particularly inappropriate way of dealing with complex issues and comes into the realm of crass stupidity."
The apprentice carpenter secured alternative employment in July 2020 and Mr Grogan stated that the employer was fortunate that the worker had obtained a new job otherwise the recommended award would have been much higher.