Exiting work WhatsApp group – A ground for dismissal?...

The introduction of instant messaging, namely WhatsApp, has changed the mode of communication in a workplace. It is now recognised as being a platform for fast, direct and professional communication. It is commonplace for employers to create different WhatsApp groups for employees in order to cater to different needs. The golden question here is whether an employee, upon deciding to quit a work WhatsApp group, can be used as a ground for dismissal.

The Industrial Court of Malaysia has recently ruled on a dismissal claim involving an employee for quitting the work WhatsApp group. In this article, we examine the facts, issues and ruling of the case.

BACKGROUND The Industrial Court of Malaysia (the “Court”) in the case of Thilagavathy a/p Arunasalam v Maxis Mobile Service Sdn Bhd
[1] has recently granted an award in favour of Maxis Mobile Sdn Bhd (“the Company”) pertaining to the claim of unfair dismissal by a former employee (“the Claimant”) who was charged for misconduct relating to her continuous argumentative, disrespectful, abrasive, tactless and uncooperative attitude.

FACTS In this Case, the Claimant was an Executive Sales & Service, Customer Service at the Company. It was common practice for the Company to create WhatsApp groups among its employees for ease of communication. The Company had clearly stated that this would be an official form of work communication and that employees are not allowed to exit such groups without prior approval of the Company. The Claimant was argumentative, disrespectful and uncooperative towards her superior and had exited the groups in blatant disregard of her superior’s instructions. Further, the Claimant had also failed to submit “Day End Sales and Service Report” on time despite numerous reminders. The Company then decided to terminate the Claimant’s services. Dissatisfied, the Claimant appealed on the ground that her dismissal was without just cause and excuse.

THE ISSUE The main issue raised was whether the Claimant was guilty of the charges preferred against her which would constitute just cause or excuse for the Company to dismiss her.

“...the Claimant’s conduct in totality challenged and rejected the whole fabric of the relationship of employer and employee and effectively destroyed the trust, which must subsist in any such relationship where the employee holds a responsible position.”

THE DECISION The Industrial Court upheld the dismissal of the Claimant and held that, 

the Claimant was aware that she was required to seek the approval of her supervisor prior to exiting the WhatsApp groups. However she had failed to obtain such approval and had deliberately exited the WhatsApp groups; and
(ii) the Claimant had failed to send out the “Day End Sales and Service Report” on several occasions despite several reminders.

As such, it was held that the Claimant’s continuous argumentative, disrespectful, abrasive, tactless and uncooperative attitude not only breached the implied duty of mutual respect but also disruptive to teamwork and cooperation at the workplace. The Claimant’s conduct also shows willful defiance to the lawful orders of the Company and her persistent refusal to obey instructions of her superior or to respect his authority amounted to an act of indiscipline and insubordination.

COMMENTS This is the first reported case on misconduct relating to the use of WhatsApp at work. To many employees, quitting work WhatsApp groups may seem petty to a degree that it does not warrant a dismissal. However considering the circumstances, whereby it was made clear that WhatsApp would be the official form of work communication and clear instructions were made that prior approval was required before an employee could leave the WhatsApp groups, it is pertinent that such instructions are obeyed as defiance may amount to misconduct to warrant dismissal. This case shows the changing demands of workplace communication methods which traverse into personal social media platforms.

For further insight in this area of law, please contact our Partners:
P Jayasingam
Wong Keat Ching
Thavaselvi Pararajasingam

[1] Industrial Court Case No. 29(7)/4-224/16, Award No. 1050 of 2019 dated 27 March 2019