We repeat: Your private office messages are never actually private

The rise of instant messaging platforms being used in our workplaces has made communication more efficient and productive—and casual.

It’s this factor that can be especially dangerous for businesses and employees. We all get a little loose sometimes, treating work as if it’s home and maybe getting too familiar with coworkers. The integration of pictures and video, like GIFS and emoji, into office chats encourage a casual tone where lips get loosened and gossip flows easily in a stream of screenshots and Michael-Jackson-eating-popcorn gifs.

In this fun environment, it can become all too easy to fool ourselves into thinking that our private communications of jokes and gossip are just between us.

They’re not.

All of your internal communications on business software usually belong to your employer, no matter how banal, as seen by the trial between the Gawker media company and professional wrestler Hulk Hogan, in which thousands of private messages between journalists became a matter of public record. Editor Max Read recounted the surreal experience of watching his former co-worker explain a Hogan joke he had made in a 2012 internal chat to opposing counsel.

The chats were a bible’s worth of career-compromising comments, “some of which would make me very uncomfortable (if not unemployable) if it got out — a wealth of gossip and prattle I should have just conducted in person,” he wrote.

His lesson is one that has been reinforced by a long line of people having their private chats and emails exposed: you’re being watched by servers and employers, so watch what you say.

Have your sensitive conversations face-to-face

You can avoid putting yourself in a precarious position by telling your colleagues to move a conversation face-to-face when a discussion could get dicey. That doesn’t mean that you can say inappropriate things face-to-face and expect them to vaporize immediately; people have memories and they will repeat your comments no matter where they hear them or see them. But it does mean you’re much better off if people with bad motivations can’t take a screenshot of your comments and take them out of context.

It’s also good practice in general to discuss sensitive subjects in person. Tone can be hard to read over messages.

Although the online platforms themselves foster this party environment where any GIF goes, they also caution against employees falsely thinking that their fun communications are private. Slack, a popular platform with over a million users, stands for Searchable Log of All Communication and Knowledge.

Through Slack’s Plus plan, employers can access all of your direct messages, chats and files from public and private channels.

“It is important to remember that it is still business software,” Slack Julia Blystone told NPR about the chat platform’s privacy limitations, “and anything you communicate on a workplace device using a workplace network may ultimately belong to your employer.”

One long-term step to avoiding embarrassing fallouts is educating yourself about cybersecurity and what your company’s Information Technology policies are. Surveillance is generally on the side of the employer and employee monitoring tools are only getting more sophisticated and lucrative. According to the tech firm 451 Research, employee monitoring is a $200 million-a-year industry.

Your downloads and web surfing are visible to your company too

Employee tracking goes beyond just what you say. The future of employee monitoring is in tracking what you do in the workplace.

Take the example of Anthony Levandowski, who was accused of taking Waymo trade secrets to his new employer Uber. Analysts believe that Waymo used employee monitoring tools to figure out Levandowski had allegedly downloaded confidential files.

Being cautious about what you communicate via instant message is one part of being aware of this new landscape. As any lawyer will remind you, anything written down can become a subpoenable, permanent record for the court of your peers to judge. Even if it doesn’t go that far, it can be part of a paper trail that can cause you trouble. Think twice before writing down anything you wouldn’t want to explain one day in court or in front of HR.

If you’re a manager, you can regularly remind employees that their communications at work aren’t private, especially on official equipment like company-issued cellphones and laptops.

Network administrators can see every website and every bit of traffic that comes from the company’s servers. And if you see a coworker not doing himself or herself any favors in their use of office chat, slip them a reminder.

Your social media accounts are also not totally private

Another risk is social media platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn in which users are easily identifiable; even if you think an account is yours personally, what you say on it could get you fired, like one banker whose inappropriate overtures on LinkedIn resulted in him losing his high-paying job.

And if you can’t avoid doing a sensitive conversation online, consider using the secure, end-to-end encryption messaging platform of Signal. But keep in mind: in some industries, like finance, all your work-related conversations have to be visible for legal reasons. Even printers have a fingerprint that show where printed pages came from. There’s no way to really keep something private using technology.