Employer Snooping On Staff Emails May Be Legal


Employers in 47 European countries may have the right to read personal messages sent by staff using a work computer. That’s the result of a court ruling concluding a case that ran for nine years.

The case involved a Romanian who was fired in 2007. His employer had told him to set up a Yahoo Messenger account to respond to client inquiries. However, he was fired after his employer discovered that, contrary to his claims, he had gone on to use Yahoo Messenger (through a separate account) at work to send personal messages with his brother and fiancee. That was classed as a “breach of the company‚Äôs internal regulations that prohibited the use of company resources for personal purposes.”

The man pursued the case through Romania’s legal system for many years without success. He finally took the case to the European Court of Human Rights. That’s a court which has the right to make rulings binding on 47 countries which have signed up to the European Convention of Human Rights, though only on points of law directly relating to the convention.

The man argued that the employer’s action had violated article eight of the convention which states that “Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.”

The court ruled that the earlier verdicts had struck the right balance between the former employee’s rights under the article and the employer’s rights to do business. It said it was reasonable for the employer to check that its computer were being used for business purposes only.

It also noted that the decision to fire him was based solely on the fact that he had provably used the computer for personal communications and that at no point did the employer reveal the contents of the personal messages or rely on them as part of their argument.

Employment law experts commenting on the ruling have noted its not an unrestricted green light for employers to read every message. Instead it only confirms their right to monitor for violations of a clearly stated policy that restricts or bans personal internet use.

[Picture Source: Gregg O’Connell (CC BY 2.0)]