Susan Beeby: Can an employer read all your emails?

Does an employer have the right to read a worker’s personal messages sent by webmail accounts and chat software during working hours?

‘Yes’ ruled the European Court of Human Rights recently, stating that a firm in Romania that read a worker’s Yahoo Messenger chats sent while he was at work was within its rights. This ruling includes the use of Facebook Messenger, iMessage and WhatsApp.

The employee claimed that Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights was applicable ie. the right to respect of his private and family life, home and correspondence.

However, Judges said his employer had a right to check on his activities as they believed they were opening a work account. They dismissed the worker’s request, saying that it was not “unreasonable that an employer would want to verify that workers were completing their professional tasks during working hours”.

Business owners may be delighted that they can now access the communications of workers who, for example, regularly switch screens when the employer walks in to the office (what are they doing online?) but there are important steps business owners must take first. Employers should have a policy in place setting out how the internet may be used by workers and how monitoring will be conducted. In addition, disciplinary policies should be checked to ensure that breaches of the internet policy are included as examples of misconduct or, in serious cases, gross misconduct.

Workers must be advised that their messages may be monitored where the Company has reason to suspect misuse of the system and, in the absence of this notification, they would have a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Finally, employers must act reasonably when monitoring workers and should go no further than necessary: workers must be protected from unregulated snooping.

Susan Beeby

Director, The HR Dept (Chichester, Bognor & Arundel)

T: 01243 214404