Email & Online Chat Surveillance By European Bosses Not Illegal

A ruling by The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) last week means that companies in Europe are within their Rights / it is not technically illegal for them to read their workers’ private messages sent via chat software and webmail accounts during working hours.

How The Ruling Came About

The ruling came as result of a case where a European employer discovered that a worker, a Romanian engineer called Bogdan Barbulescu, was using Yahoo Messenger for his personal contacts as well as his professional ones. The employer made the discovery by actually reading a log of his messages on the Yahoo Messenger account that he had set up for work and also by reading the messages from his second personal one. The device used to send the messages was owned by the employer and the employer had already banned its staff from sending personal messages at work.

The result for Mr Barbulescu was that he was sacked back in 2007 but the debate raised by the final ruling recently is likely to go on and the effects of the ruling on the dynamic in the workplaces across Europe could be significant.

What About the Law Here in the UK?

Britain is one of the countries that have ratified the European Convention on Human Rights and therefore technically the UK has agreed to abide by the ECHR rulings that involve them. As far as the domestic courts go however, in the UK judges must take into account the ECHR's decisions but are not bound by them.

What Could ‘Not Illegal’ Surveillance Mean For Your Business?

For businesses it is important to be fair e.g. not imposing a complete blanket ban on personal communications as these are often necessary to some degree at work in order to manage modern life.

It is also important for businesses to have clear policies and rules about what work email accounts and devices should be used for. These should be clearly communicated to all employees from the outset. If you do choose to go down the surveillance route, make sure that the monitoring policies are appropriate, lawful, communicated to employees, and correctly adhered to by managers.

An Increasing Number of Examples Online

More and more reports of workplace surveillance of this kind can now be found online and they can help us get an insight into the detail of what a ruling like the recent one could actually mean for both employer and employee.

The BBC website for example recently highlighted the events of a real life work scenario whereby a City worker had to leave a company after allegations of making inappropriate comments about a colleague. The comments had been in the City worker’s emails and instant messages on work accounts that HR had read.

The fear of a large lawsuit from the colleague that the comments had been made about in this case appeared to be the motivating factor for HR / the employers’ actions.