Do employers have the right to snoop on employees' private emails?

WORKPLACE RIGHTS: Companies need to follow UK legislation - which places significant restrictions on the power to monitor employees' private communications.

by Michael Burd and James Davies

The European Court of Human Rights recently ruled that a Romanian company did not breach an employee's right to privacy when it accessed intimate personal messages he had sent on a work-related Yahoo Messenger account. UK media coverage of the judgment was largely misleading, suggesting that it gave employers broad licence to snoop on employees' private correspondence.

The key point about the case was that the Yahoo account was set up for work purposes and personal use was expressly prohibited. The Court merely decided that the company was entitled to use the Yahoo messages in disciplinary proceedings to show the claimant had broken the rules.

When considered in its proper context, the ruling breaks no fresh legal ground and is consistent with UK legislation placing significant restrictions on the power to monitor employees' private communications. The message for managers remains the same. They should ensure they have clear policies on the use of workplace systems for email and internet access and that any monitoring is applied in a proportionate manner for legitimate business purposes.

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