Should employers be allowed to monitor personal emails sent at work? Coodes Solicitors Employment lawyer Philip Sayers comments on a recent case that highlights the issues.
The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights has held that an employee’s privacy rights were infringed when his employer monitored personal emails, which he sent at work on his personal Yahoo account.
The European Court of Human Rights’ decision overturned an earlier outcome at a lower level of that court, which ruled in favour of the employer.
The staff member was called into a meeting and told that his employer had monitored his communications for a week and considered he had been breaching their ban on private use of their IT systems. When he denied it, they then produced a 45-page transcript of messenger communications, which included intimate personal information sent in emails to his fiancé and brother. The employer printed the information on a shared printer so his colleagues found and discussed some of it. The employee was dismissed for personal internet use at work.
Although this case was in Romania, it highlights some important issues for UK employers. The employer had a strict policy prohibiting any private use of IT equipment, stating ‘your misconduct will be carefully monitored and punished’. However, it did not expressly say that the content of communications would be monitored. It seems that they also did not consider whether they could have monitored using less intrusive methods.
It is worth noting that in the UK, the Data Protection Act 1998 and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 already limit an employer’s ability to monitor private communications. In other words, British workers already have greater rights to privacy at work than existed in Romania.
I would advise all employers to have a clear, well thought out policy on IT use. This could include specifying that business equipment, including PCs, laptops and smart phones are not for personal use. Other avenues should always be explored before monitoring staff emails. If monitoring is deemed to be essential then any information discovered should be kept secure and only used for the purpose for which the monitoring was carried out. Crucially, employees must be made aware that the content of their emails may be monitored.
For more information on this or any Employment enquiries contact Philip Sayers, Employment team, Coodes Solicitors on 01872 246200 or email@example.com.