Private employee messages ruling not a 'green light for snooping'

By snooping unnecessarily employers can damage the trust between themselves and their workers

HR and employment law experts have reacted to the EU ruling on reading employees’ private messages at work.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled that a firm that read a worker's Yahoo Messenger chats sent to his family while he was at work was within its rights.

Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, warned that this should not be seen as a “green light” for snooping. “The line between work and personal life is becoming increasingly blurred,” he said. “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.”

Wilmott warned that unnecessary snooping can damage trust between employers and their workers. “Our research has shown that excessive monitoring of employees by organisations often cultivates a culture of distrust and negatively impacts on their loyalty and commitment,” he added. “Employees that feel under excessive surveillance are also more likely to suffer from stress so there needs to be a clear case for monitoring.”

Kathryn Dooks, employment partner at technology and digital media law firm Kemp Little, said that the ruling is broadly in line with existing English employment tribunal decisions in this area. “In previous cases tribunals have found that if an employer bans the personal use of work IT and email systems and an employee is in serious breach of that policy, such an employee was fairly dismissed in circumstances where the employer had a clear policy that was drawn to the employee's attention and that clearly stated the breach was likely to constitute gross misconduct,” she said. “The question is whether the employee has a reasonable expectation of privacy on the company email system.

“In other words: provided employers have a clear policy that specifies monitoring will take place, and this is drawn to the employees' attention, then in most cases monitoring of emails to some degree is likely to be permissible, although there may be circumstances under which consent is required,” she added.