Private messages sent at work can be read by employers

Posted in Employment

The European Court of Human Rights has 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.”

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 powers as it had accessed the Yahoo account on the assumption that the information was related to professional activities.

The judgment did, however, make clear that it would not be acceptable for employers to “snoop” on their employees.

This case highlights the importance of having a set of policies in place to define what information employers are entitled to and how they can access 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 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.

If you would like to discuss any of the issues raised in this blog, please do not hesitate to contact a member of our Employment department on 0161 941 4000 or alternatively use the enquiry form found on the right of this page.

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