How to Deal

Messy Instances of Instant Messaging

By Lily Garcia
Special to
Wednesday, July 18, 2007; 5:44 PM

I am certain that one of my employees is using instant messaging to make disparaging remarks about my supervision and our company. What recourse do I have?

If the instant messaging is happening at work -- which includes telecommuting or after-hours company-sponsored events -- your approach should be no different from to how you would handle an employee's remarks by the water cooler.

First, consider that the employee may have legitimate concerns and approach him or her with an open mind. Even if the employee's comments are extremely aggravating or rude, try to avoid approaching the employee in such a way as to quash his or her expressiveness. The rudeness is nothing but noise behind which, if you listen carefully, you might be able to discern some important essential observation about your leadership style or the company.

Have you actually seen the text of the messages? If you have, and your opinion is that they take an inappropriate tone, you should also address that. Tell the employee that his dissatisfaction may be legitimate, but that you hope that he or she will take a more constructive approach to addressing concerns in the future. Share the negative impact that derisive or mean-spirited comments, especially those made to co-workers, can have on the work environment.

Unless you have seen the messages, do not make assumptions about how they are expressed. Instead, tell the employee (with as much specificity as you can offer) that you have become aware that he is dissatisfied, ask for clarification and encourage the employee to approach you or human resources with such feedback in the future.

If, despite your overture, the employee continues to make remarks that are harmful or demoralizing, the behavior should be addressed just as your company addresses any other performance problem. Keep in mind that if the employee's remarks divulge confidential information about the company or its employees, the behavior might also violate your company's code of business conduct.

If the instant messaging is not happening at work and does not concern the dissemination of confidential information, your approach should be more subtle. You should still address the employee's dissatisfaction, but be very sensitive to his privacy. After all, how would you feel if comments that you made in your personal life somehow got back to your boss?

Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.

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