Can employers read employees’ personal emails?

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Is it against an employee’s human rights if their employer reads personal emails they have sent at work?
Two recent court cases say employers can, in fact, read these emails.

Advancements in information technology are great for business, not least because they mean that communication can be undertaken quicker and more efficiently because messages can be sent at any time of the day. Employees may think they have a reasonable expectation of privacy because their emails are not work related but these cases show that this will not always be the case.

Case 1 – Breach of IT policy

An employee in Romania was dismissed when his employer found that he had used an email account set up for work purposes to send emails to his brother and fiancée. This was strictly prohibited by the employer’s IT policy, which also reserved the right to monitor communications. He complained that his employer had breached his human rights by looking at his personal emails.

The European Court of Human Rights relied on the comprehensive content of the IT policy to permit the employer to look at the personal emails and therefore decided the employee’s human rights were not breached.

Case 2 – Malicious emails to colleagues

An NHS manager had been in a personal relationship with a nurse which had broken down. The manager suspected that the nurse then began a relationship with a colleague and he took this quite badly. The nurse and the colleague involved then began to receive anonymous malicious messages, as did several other members of staff.

The manager was reported to the police for harassment and evidence was found to connect the emails with the manager’s mobile phone. Once the investigation was concluded, the police gave the evidence to the employer who then used it as evidence in their disciplinary proceedings against the manager. The manager claimed that his employer had breached his human rights by reading the emails.

The Employment Appeal Tribunal decided that the employer was entitled to read the communication because, although relationships between colleagues were private, the relationship had been brought into the workplace by the emails sent, and the emails had an impact on work related issues.

Action Points For Employers

  • Keep an up to date IT policy which is reviewed on an ongoing basis;
  • Tell employees whether they are permitted to use equipment provided by work, or accounts set up to assist with work, for personal use;
  • Ensure employees know that you will monitor communications at all times when personal use is not permitted, so that no reasonable expectation of privacy can be held;
  • Dismissal for personal use of IT equipment will not always, of itself, lead to a fair dismissal. You should always ensure a fair procedure is followed when dealing with it;
  • Don’t use these cases as blanket permission to snoop on all personal emails because there will be a reasonable expectation of privacy in some cases e.g. if an employee leaves their personal account open at lunch time when you permit personal usage of computers.

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