Can employers monitor employees’ personal messages at work?

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Yes, according to a recent European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) case concerning an engineer in Romania. However, there are limitations to this decision as set out below.

The ECHR considered a case whereas as part of its investigation, the employer in Romania accessed private messages sent by the employee to friends and family relating to personal matters through a Yahoo Messenger account that the employee had been asked to create for the purpose of responding to the client’s enquiries.

The employee was dismissed for personal internet use at work, contrary to the employer’s internal policies that stated that it was strictly forbidden “to use computers, photocopiers, telephones, telex and fax machines for personal purposes.”

The employee claimed that the employer had breached his right to privacy and the matter was referred to the ECHR.

The ECHR concluded that in this case, the monitoring and use of the personal messages was a proportionate interference of the employee’s right to privacy. It was noted that the employer could monitor the messages because it believed that it was accessing a work account.

There has been widespread publication and comment of the ECHR’s decision, some of which suggest that there is now carte blanche for employers to snoop on employee’s personal communications. This is not the case and the particular facts of each case will be relevant.

Further, this decision does not overrule previous ECHR case law confirming that an employee should have a reasonable expectation of privacy. Further, there are numerous legal principles in UK law that place important limitations on an employer’s power to monitor employees’ private communications.

This decision also highlights how important it is for employers to have a clear policy on the use of their computers and IT systems during working hours. In this case, the employer demonstrated that it did have a suitable policy in place to support its decision to look at messages sent on the work computer.

Written by
Rachael Jessop
18th January 2016