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Employers can read workers’ private messages, says European Court

Employers are being warned against ‘snooping’ on staff, despite the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruling that an organisation that read a worker's personal messages sent while he was at work was within its rights.

Romanian engineer, Bogdan Barbulescu, was dismissed for using his Yahoo Messenger email account – created for work purposes at his company's request – to send personal emails during working hours.

He claimed that his employer had violated his right to correspondence and was in breach of the Constitution and Criminal Code by accessing his communications. However, his complaint was dismissed on grounds that his employer had complied with dismissal proceedings and the complainant had been informed of company regulations.

Barbulescu appealed, claiming his e-mails were protected by Article 8 – the right to respect for private and family life, the home and correspondence. The Court of Appeal held that the employer’s conduct had been reasonable and that monitoring had been the only way to establish whether a disciplinary breach had occurred.

Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD said the ruling was "not a green light for businesses to start snooping on employees".

“The line between work and personal life is becoming increasingly blurred. We know that the working day rarely fits into a nine-to-five mould any more. Employees often respond to work emails on personal devices outside of usual working hours so it makes sense that, on occasion, they may want to engage in social correspondence during the working day on a work device,” he said.

Research has shown excessive monitoring cultivates a culture of distrust and negatively impacts on employees' loyalty and commitment, Willmott added, and employers need to find the balance between their legislative rights and trust in the workforce.

He added: "Organisations need to be transparent about if they are doing it and why, for example, being clear on the risks that the monitoring is designed to prevent. Employers should also set out clear rules around what personal use they do allow and what the limitations on this may be, such as the hours in which it is permitted.”

Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC said British workers put in "billions worth of unpaid overtime every year" and shouldn’t be punished for occasionally checking private emails.

“Big Brother bosses do not get the best out of employees,” she said. “Staff who are being snooped on are less productive and less healthy. It is essential that employers have clear policies on internet use so that people are not caught out."

Added: 20-01-2016
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