Should employees have the ‘right to disconnect?’

Dealing with after-hours communications in the workplace

Should employees have the ‘right to disconnect?’
Brian Kreissl

By Brian Kreissl

In my last post, I mentioned I would be covering the so-called “right to disconnect” in my next post. I had meant to write about this topic last week, but I got sidetracked with all of the work I had to complete as a result of being on vacation.

This is relevant to the issue of the right to disconnect because, as mentioned in my last post, there are times when disconnecting from work can cause stress, anxiety and worry over unfinished business and the fear of missing out (FOMO). Yet technology has intruded so much into our personal lives — and the expectation of 24/7 connectivity is so pervasive — I believe people need some down time and an opportunity to disconnect from work.

In most cases, it’s unreasonable to expect a work colleague, subordinate, supplier, customer or even a manager to answer an email after hours or while on vacation — particularly where there’s an expectation of an immediate response or even a reply within a couple of hours. It’s also worth noting that the expectation in many positions, industries and organizations that people always be “on” and ready to answer any inquiry extends not only to email, but also to text and instant messaging, phone calls and even social media.

Disconnecting from social media

The authors of a forthcoming book, the Human Resources Guide to Social Media in the Workplace: A Canadian Perspective, have discussed with me the right to disconnect in the context of social media. This is very interesting given that not so long ago, social media was considered a distraction from work rather than a major part of it.

But with so many people using social media as a big part of their jobs these days, the concept should also extend to social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and YouTube. We live in a globalized world and comments, posts, tweets and newsworthy events impacting organizations aren’t limited to standard office hours Monday to Friday in North America.

This can pose a real problem for people like social media community managers, digital marketers, salespeople, public relations, corporate communications, compliance professionals and recruiters who use social media regularly as part of their roles. What happens, for example, if a major news story impacting the organization breaks over the weekend or someone makes a derogatory and damaging comment on social media about the organization and its products and services in the evening hours and the comment goes “viral?”

In many organizations, the expectation would be that the person responsible for the relevant social media accounts would respond in a timely manner when faced with an emergency situation. This seems perfectly reasonable, but the problem is that someone would need to be monitoring social media channels and even the news media after hours to be aware there’s anything going on in the first place.

Right to disconnect legislation

While large organizations can afford to hire people specifically to monitor social media accounts and respond to comments and inquiries during evenings and weekends, most companies lack the resources to be able to do that. What about organizations where the culture is such that managers expect employees to respond via e-mail or social media after hours?

Another problem in many industries is clients and customers expect employees to be available basically at any time. This could potentially result in unpaid overtime litigation. Even in the case of employees exempt from paid overtime provisions, this can have a negative impact on employee health, safety, wellbeing and morale.

Because of these issues, some jurisdictions have passed or are considering “right to disconnect” legislation. For example, in France such legislation now allows workers to ignore after hours email, and New York is considering legislation that would make it illegal to contact workers when they’re scheduled to be off. A private member’s bill was introduced in Quebec which would require employers to adopt an after-hours disconnection policy with fines for non-compliance.

While I believe having legislation stating employees have the right to ignore after-hours electronic communications other than in emergencies is reasonable, I wouldn’t go as far as to ban all communications to employees after hours. I have personally taken time to catch up on email after hours, although in no way did I expect the recipients to respond until the next day. Just because someone receives a communication doesn’t mean she necessarily has to respond immediately.

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