Can you read employees’ messages?

A recent ruling in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has hit the headlines after it was deemed legal for an employer to read the private messages of an employee that were sent within work hours.

The case, which involved a Romanian engineer named Bogdan Bărbulescu, first went to the courts in Romania. There, it was ruled that the employer was within its rights to sack Mr Bărbulescu upon finding he was sending personal messages via his work’s Yahoo Messenger account. Challenging this ruling and claiming his employer had breached his rights under the European Human Rights Act (article 8 – the right to respect for private and family life, the home and correspondence), Mr Bărbulescu took the case to the European Court of Human Rights. The judges ruled that due to the messages being sent via a work account, the employer in question was entitled to access the messages and use them in a case against the employee.  The ECHR also clarified their position further, commenting that it is not “unreasonable that an employer would want to verify that employees were completing their professional tasks during working hours”.

This does not mean that all communication by employees with their families and friends should be outright banned during work hours. Individual companies may have their own policies on this – perhaps designating a particular method of communication that is considered to be least disruptive. Employers will particularly want to exercise leniency when employees are going through times of emotional or other distress.

Furthermore, the ruling does not give employers carte blanche to monitor every movement or communication their staff make. Whilst some monitoring may be necessary for security purposes, the extent and reasons behind this should always be communicated to staff.

For any further advice in relation to this case and the monitoring of employee communications during work hours, please contact either: Pam McColl or Amanda Houlgrave or call us on 0161 312 1864.