News & Views

European Court favours employee’s privacy rights at work

HK
BY Heather Kemmett
Employment law
BG Purple

In January 2016 we wrote about a recent EU ruling concerning whether or not companies can monitor workers’ private messages.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has recently ruled again on the case involving a Romanian engineer who was dismissed in 2007. The individual in question had been using his Yahoo office account to send messages to his brother and fiancée, some of which were considered to be of an intimate nature.

Originally, the ECtHR had found that the Romanian justice system had been right in its original ruling; the employer had acted reasonably when reading the employee’s messages and in his subsequent dismissal. Following this decision much was made in the news of the fact that employees could now snoop through employees email accounts at leisure. Whilst this was not strictly speaking accurate, employers will want to make sure they are aware of how this new ruling will affect them. 

This time, the judges voted 11 to 6 that the employee’s privacy had been violated when his bosses had read the messages and then used his personal use of this account as reason to fire him. The Court found this to be a violation of his right to a private life, despite the fact the company’s rules prevented the use of office resources for personal matters and the worker was told not to use the account to send personal messages.  Whilst employers can work to restrict private correspondence, the Court stated it cannot eliminate private social life in the workplace completely.

Whilst you may assume that such a ruling will have little bearing on your own businesses now that the UK has voted for Brexit, the rulings of this court actually still apply because it is not part of the European Union.

Such a ruling is especially note-worthy in an age where employees are likely to be using instant messaging apps frequently within their work environment. In fact, last year it was reported that research carried out by Dice in 2016 found that nearly 70% of UK workers regularly send messages using these platforms during the work day. Whilst the original ruling meant that employers could (reasonably) monitor this usage to ensure their employees were using their work hours productively, this is no longer the case.

One key point that has emerged from this new ruling is that if employers do want to monitor their employee’s email and communication usage, they should explicitly inform them of this before they do so. If this is an issue that is prevalent within your business or if you have questions about your internet and email use policy, you should get in touch with a member of the Employment Law team. We also have template styles that can be provided if your current policies have been affected by this ruling.

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