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The European Court of Human Rights has recently ruled that employers can read their workers’ private emails and messages sent during working hours.

This ruling stems from a Romanian case involving an employee who claimed his right to privacy had been infringed after his employer went through his emails, without seeking his permission. The employee had used his Yahoo messenger account to send personal messages to both his brother and fiancée during working hours. The court ruled in favour of the employer, stating that it was “not unreasonable that an employer would want to verify that employees were completing their professional tasks during working hours.”

Crucially, the employee had been informed beforehand that he was not permitted to use company resources for his own personal use. This meant that he could not subsequently claim it was a breach of his human rights for his employer to monitor what he was doing. The employer had also acted within its disciplinary process as it had accessed the Yahoo account on the assumption that the information was related to professional activities.
This judgment does not, however, give an unfettered right for employers to “snoop” on their employees.

In this particular case, the employer had implemented an absolute ban on using its IT resources for personal use, which entitled the employer to properly investigate by reading the employee’s emails. Many employers allow some personal email use at work. As such, they could easily find themselves in breach if they read personal emails without justification and without a clear policy giving them permission to do so.

This case highlights the importance of having a set of policies in place to define what information employers are entitled to access and how they can go about accessing such information. This should be in addition to policies on employee internet usage during working hours and employers should ensure that such policies are communicated to all of their staff.

It should be noted that this is a decision of the European Court of Human Rights, rather than the Court of Justice of the European Union (commonly referred to as the ECJ), and so would not be directly affected by the EU referendum decision of 23 June. However, as the EU mandates that all members must sign up to the European Convention on Human Rights, the UK’s withdrawal from the EU would open up the possibility of a future government repealing the Human Rights Act and withdrawing from the Convention. The Conservative party has previously stated that it would consider replacing the Human Rights Act with a UK “Bill of Rights”, and so there is the genuine possibility of this becoming a manifesto pledge in a future general election.

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