Employers and private emails

We reported in an earlier newsletter on the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) case which held that employers were allowed to check the private emails of staff who were reading them during work hours.

The employee in question has opened a Yahoo Messenger account at his employer's request but he was sacked when the employer discovered that the employee had used the account for personal purposes during working hours.

The employee argued that his right to privacy under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights had been breached. The Article includes the wording: '1. Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.'

The case went to appeal and the ECHR has overturned the earlier decision. The court decided by a majority that the employer had breached the employee's right to respect for his private life. Interestingly however the employee was not awarded any damages (i.e. monetary compensation for any loss incurred). This is a final decision as there is no further right of appeal.

The court stated that:

'It does not mean that employers cannot, under any circumstances, monitor employees' communications or that they cannot dismiss employees for using the internet at work for private purposes. However, the Court considers that States should ensure that, when an employer takes measures to monitor employees' communications, these measures are accompanied by adequate and sufficient safeguards against abuse.'

The case acts as a useful reminder to employers to review their email and internet policies regularly to ensure that it is completely clear to employees the circumstances in which the employer reserves the right to monitor private email and messages.

Employers are reminded that the content of policies should be reviewed regularly, but that any changes should also be brought to the attention of all employees. Many employees will open private email and other accounts at work so the prospect of difficulty and confusion in this area is rife.

To discuss this or any other employment related issue, contact us.

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