Court rules that employers can read private messages at work

20 January, 2016
by: Cripps Pemberton Greenish

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has held that a company was allowed to read its worker’s private messages when he was at work. The decision is binding on Great Britain.

The worker, a Romania engineer, was dismissed in 2007 for breaching his employer’s regulations. The company had found that the worker was using Yahoo Messenger not only as part of his work but also for personal messages. The engineer argued that the company had breached his right to confidential correspondence by accessing his messages.  

The ECtHR agreed with the domestic courts that the company had acted within its disciplinary power by accessing the worker’s account because it had believed the information it was accessing was in relation to a work account. The company had therefore legitimately accessed the Yahoo Messenger account. The ECtHR held that it was not unreasonable for employers to want to make sure that their employees were actually working during their working hours. It was held that the worker had breached company rules and the company had a right to check that he was completing his work. The ECtHR held that the domestic courts had struck a fair balance between the engineer’s right to confidential correspondence and the interests of the employer.

The ECtHR stated that it would be not acceptable for employers to conduct unregulated snooping on their workers. Employers must have an electronic communications policy for example, which sets out what and how they can monitor and collect such information.

It is also advisable to include a monitoring clause in the contract so that you have the employee’s express consent to monitor them.

For those employers who already have an electronic communications policy, it is a good time to review it in the light of the ECtHR’s judgment. Without the right to monitor an employee, a company could find itself in breach of data protection and could damage the relationship of trust and confidence implied into the employees’ contract of employment.