Group chatting is nothing new in the workplace.
Way back in the early aughts, I worked in a company that was an agglomeration of a bunch of small Internet services providers. I was at corporate HQ, but my closest colleagues were elsewhere. Although we worked miles apart, and only saw each other a few times a year, we all became fast friends. (We still are.) We spent a lot of time on the phone with each other, and, when we were sitting through especially tedious meetings, we hung out together making snarky comments via IM. (I can’t remember what we used; it may have been AIM, as in AOL Instant Messaging, which certainly dates things.)
We apparently never got out-of-hand snarky, because we were never ratted out by spies in IT who were monitoring IM. This happened to someone who went on an IM rant about the incompetence of the companies COO. I don’t think the guy was fired, but he was slapped around a bit.
But these days, folks are using group chat more often, and are being caught out more often, sometimes while using a chat app that their company has blessed as the means to do work group chats. Collaboration being all the rage that it is, companies are encouraging employees to use platforms like Campfire, Slack, and HipChat, as it’s reputed to be so much more time-efficient and productive than face-to-face meetings or (groan) email.
While these platforms can be used for “legitimate” collaboration, they’re also used to just hang out. (And, of course, even a work conversation can always take a side trip…)
Workplace chat is often called a "digital water cooler" because it's where co-workers have informal, nonwork-related conversations at the office. Slack has features that encourage levity, including a GIF generator and a custom emoji creator. But it's also the nature of chat, its informality and speed, that make gossiping and joking easy. "Much more our normal workplace interactions have moved to digital environments and therefore become permanent in ways that water cooler chat never was," said Eric Goldman, a professor of technology law at Santa Clara University School of Law. "There is no more deniability about these casual social interactions." (Source: Bloomberg)
The latest folks to get tripped up by these “casual social interactions” are at Gawker.
Gawker is being sued by wrestler Hulk Hogan – you really can’t make these things up – because the Gawk-sters posted a sex tape involving him getting it on with a friend’s wife – or was it a wife’s friend? (You really can’t make these things up. I’m enough of an old fuddy-duddy to question why there’d be a market for a celebrity sex tape. Or any sex tape. Or any tape in which Hulk Hogan appeared.)
Anyway, what’s come out in court are “penis jokes” that a senior Gawker editor and his staff traded while they were sitting around the digital Campfire. Now that “penis jokes” have become standard in Republican debate circles, maybe they don’t count for as much as they once did, in terms of negative reaction, Still, the fact that these guys were apparently trash-talking Hulk Hogan’s man parts may encourage the jury to decide that Gawker done Hulk wrong. Maybe even to the tune of the $100M Hogan is looking for.
Now, we can’t exactly hold Gawker up as a sterling example of vaunted corporate do gooder, an exemplar of business rectitude They’re a gossip site. So we don’t especially hold them to any vaunted standard of inter-office intercourse. (Okay: ahem.)
Still, we know that chat will be chat, and that, in the office, pretty much anything goes.
Some of the running Hulk commentary was about “the color and consistency of Hogan’s ‘pubes’”. Let me get this out of the way: ewwwww…..
But it does remind me of an incident of yore. As I recall, during the Clarence Thomas hearings – in those pre-always on days – some of the conversations that were reported included chat (real my lips to your ear, physical chat) about penis size and pubic hair. As I further recall, Senator Orrin Hatch was completely horrified, and said something to the effect that anyone who would use the words “pubic hair” in the workplace would have to be insane.
Well, not that we were talking pubes with any regularity where I worked, but to do so would certainly not have been considered insane. To say the least.
The bottom line is that, while you always need to watch what you say, you really need to watch what you put in digital writing. What you say at the water cooler is literally hearsay. He said-she said. Subject to faulty recall. But you commit it to email, chat, twitter, Facebook. It’s out there just waiting to be discovered.
As a great Boston Irish pol once famously said,
“"Never write if you can speak; never speak if you can nod; never nod if you can wink.”
I’ve used this quote before – more than once - because, more than 100 years after Martin Lomasney uttered these words, they’re as relevant as ever. Maybe we need a slightly updated version:
Never write/email/tweet/comment or chat if you can speak…
You just never know who might be out there watching and listening.