Employers can read workers’ private messages sent via chat software and webmail accounts.
A recent ruling means that it is legal and acceptable for employers to read private communication taking place during working hours.
In a case known to Consensus HR, a customer service employee sent inappropriate photos to a client in error. The photos had been circulated amongst the team via social media. This emphasises how vital it is for companies to take steps to protect their reputations. Now, this can include accessing private communication happening during working hours.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) introduced this change. It ruled that an employe
r that read a worker’s Yahoo Messenger chats sent while he was at work was within his rights. Judges said he had breached the company’s rules and that his employer had a right to check on his activities. Such policies must also protect workers against unfettered snooping, they said.
The worker, an engineer in Romania, had hoped the court would rule that his employer had breached his right to confidential correspondence when it accessed his messages and subsequently sacked him in 2007.
His employer had discovered that he was using Yahoo Messenger for personal contacts, as well as professional ones. He was sending /receiving personal messages with his fiancée, and his brother, including messages about his health and sex life.
Because it believed it was accessing a work account, the judges said, the firm had not erred.
They dismissed the man’s request, saying that it was not “unreasonable that an employer would want to verify that employees were completing their professional tasks during working hours”.
The judges said: “The employer acted within its disciplinary powers since, as the domestic courts found, it had accessed the Yahoo Messenger account on the assumption that the information in question had been related to professional activities and that such access had therefore been legitimate. The court sees no reason to question these findings.”
The man, named Bogdan Barbulescu, had already lost his case in Romania’s domestic courts and appealed to the ECHR.
He argued that his right to a private life had been breached when his employer had read a log of messages on a Yahoo Messenger account he had set up for work, as well as that from a second personal one.
Mr Barbulescu’s employer had banned staff from sending personal messages at work and this was in breach of his employment contract.
To check his account, the judges said, it had been necessary for his employer to access his records.
The judges said this was a proportionate step because the firm did not access other information stored on his work computer.
And they added that Mr Barbulescu had had prior warning that the company could check his messages.
Matthew from Consensus HR explains: “ This European Court of Human Rights case highlights the importance of having appropriate and lawful social media and employee-monitoring policies in place. These must be appropriately communicated to all employees and adhered to by the employer. Appropriate action needs to be taken when required, especially with the changes that are happening in the workplace. These changes include longer working hours and days and the continual increase in the use of IT tablets, phones & computers. Almost every business is affected and employers should update their contracts and review their disciplinary and grievance policies.”