Employers Right To Check Private Messages

A recent decision by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has stated that employers have the right to check employees’ webmail and chat accounts.

However, there are some significant factors that relate to this particular case:

1. The employer had an established policy that allowed for employees’ accounts to be checked.

2. The employer also made clear that accounts could not be used for personal reasons during work hours, and that no personal use of accounts or the internet was permitted during work hours.

3. Because the employer had clear established policies and followed them – they were within their rights to check employee accounts. The ECHR held that employees had notice of this.

In this case the employee had two Yahoo Messenger accounts – one for personal and the other for work. The court did not actually rule if the employer had the right to check the personal account – the ruling only related to the work account.

Some have questioned the ruling, as employees still have the right to a private life and as employees can work significant hours they should be able to use accounts for personal reasons when at work. This would appear reasonable, particularly as many employers expect employees to read and reply to emails and messages outside work hours.

Given the blurring between work and home life it is inevitable that employees use Internet access and accounts for both business and personal use during work time.

Also, in this case the employer supplied the device used, so it was company property, and the employer had the right to request the device and access to it.

This ruling does not really change that much, as it relates to business accounts and the employer had a clear policy – so the headline is dramatic – this is how it has been portrayed in the media.

Employees can still avoid most restrictions by using their own devices – obviously phones during work hours. Also most employers recognise the give and take of work and personal life and allow for the overlap as they also benefit from it.

However, the employer is this case could act because they had a clear policy that employees were aware of, and the employer followed their policy to the letter.

We recommend our Employers Pack staff handbook product for employers who want clear and enforceable policies.

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