The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) held yesterday that it was legitimate for an employer to read its employee’s Yahoo Messenger chats, sent whilst he was at work. The employee was asked to set up a Yahoo Messenger account for business purposes. When the employer accessed the account it discovered a significant number of private messages, including exchanges between the employee, his fiancée and his brother disclosing intimate information.
Since the employer’s internal rules clearly stated that personal use of computers was strictly forbidden, the employee was dismissed. The employee pursued a claim in the ECHR arguing that his former employer’s actions were an unlawful breach of his right to respect for his private life under the Human Rights Act 1998. The ECHR said however that the employer was entitled to monitor the messages because it had a genuinely held belief it was accessing a work account and it was “not unreasonable that an employer would want to verify that employees were completing their professional tasks during working hours”.
Does this mean you can snoop on your employees?
No. It is important to have in place I.T and electronic communications policies which have regard to data protection legislation and the UK Information Commissioner’s Employment Practices Code. Those policies should warn employees that monitoring may occur; when information about their email use will be obtained; why it will be obtained; how this information will be used; and who it will be disclosed to. Employers should also consider whether monitoring is justified. In other words, whether the benefits to the organisation outweigh the adverse impact on employees. In this case the Employer’s rules prohibited all personnel use of the computer system; that is not always the case. If, like many employers, a company allows some personal use provided it is not excessive/is not done in work time, it will also be necessary to warn employees that monitoring may result in the employer accessing personal communications.
If monitoring takes place without employees having been provided with this information or without reasonable justification, it may entitle the employee to terminate his or her employment and claim constructive dismissal in an employment tribunal, in addition to damages through the civil courts.
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