It’s easy to forget that idle banter on Slack can come back to haunt you, especially when you’re talking about your coworkers. At Netflix, three former film marketing executives fell into that trap. The company fired them last week after it discovered they were complaining about colleagues on the platform.

Responding to news of the firings, revealed by The Hollywood Reporter, Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos said the gripes in question went well-beyond a few off-hand remarks about superiors, as the article suggested.

“These were critical, personal comments made over several months about their peers...including during meetings when those peers were talking or presenting,” Sarandos said in a post Saturday on LinkedIn. “It’s also worth noting that we don’t proactively monitor Slack or email. The Slack channel was open so anyone could access the conversations even though the employees concerned thought it was private.”

Slack has become an indispensable, if occasionally annoying, office communication tool, especially during the pandemic with more people working from home. Along with offering a faster and simpler alternative to much-hated “reply all” emails, it can help workers maintain a sense of comradery by sharing jokes, funny memes and — just like in a physical workplace — gossip. 

Therein lie some potentially problematic situations.

While it might be unseemly for bosses to snoop on employees chatting around a water cooler, there is nothing that stops human resources or management from reviewing comments in Slack channels. In fact, employers may have a duty to ensure that communications over Slack aren’t harassing or discriminatory, or may need to preserve the communications in the event of a lawsuit, notes employment law expert Minna Kotkin.

If they want to avoid litigation, that’s one thing that they should be monitoring,” Kotkin, a professor at Brooklyn Law School, told us. Any employee manual should indicate written communication of any sort and can be the subject of disciplinary action.”

In most cases, workers should not expect to have privacy in written communications, even in direct messages with individual coworkers on Slack, she added.

“It’s just the same as email, no different,” she told us. “The employer has the right to go into your messages. This was a controversy when email first came on the scene. Now it’s just going to other interfaces.” 

In his post Saturday, Sarandos cited a core value espoused by Netflix co-founder and co-CEO Reed Hastings as a basis for the terminations: “You only say things about fellow employees that you say to their face.” But comments on Slack have gotten workers in trouble at other companies that don’t have such clearly articulated stances against passive aggressive snark and grousing.

Early this year, GitHub fired a Jewish employee for using the word “Nazi” on a work Slack channel, in reference to the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. “Stay safe homies, Nazis are about,” he remarked. Although the company later offered the worker his job back after reviewing the incident, he declined to return, according to TechCrunch. Instead, they reached an “amicable resolution.” 

In 2019, employees at startup Away were fired after they complained about the company in a Slack channel. The employees told The Verge they were griping as a means to cope with a toxic culture and “bullying” from higher-ups on the platform — which can allow managers to “ping” their charges at all hours of the day.

Anxiety about what workers can and can’t say on Slack is clearly high, with news of the Netflix firings unleashing a torrent of comments from LinkedIn users. Some users pointed out that gossiping and complaints are natural occurrences in workplaces, and shouldn’t be punished merely because the conversations move to online platforms.

People sometimes need to vent.. it's completely normal,” said Robert Postuma, a digital marketing specialist. “That said, anyone that does so on a company's user system - should never expect privacy, it's a huge risk.”

Launched in 2014, Slack now has 12 million daily active users, including 156,000 enterprises that pay for the app. Salesforce announced in December that it was acquiring the platform for $27.7 billion. Slack disclosed Monday that the transaction was given the green light by the U.S. Department of Justice. 

Interest in the app surged markedly after COVID set in. Daily page traffic spiked by roughly 10 times starting in mid-February 2020, and sharp spikes have continued throughout the past year, according to Thinknum data. 

About the Data:

Thinknum tracks companies using the information they post online, jobs, social and web traffic, product sales, and app ratings, and creates data sets that measure factors like hiring, revenue, and foot traffic. Data sets may not be fully comprehensive (they only account for what is available on the web), but they can be used to gauge performance factors like staffing and sales.

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