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Monitoring internet and email usage in the workplace

Published 25 January 2016

While the case of a Romanian engineer being fired after his bosses are said to have snooped on his emails made national headlines in the past week, it is worth remembering that this is nothing new.

The worker was sacked after his bosses discovered he had been sending personal messages on an account that had been set up for work.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) heard he had been made aware from the outset by his employer of surveillance of the Yahoo message account.

When bosses discovered a raft of ‘highly personal’ messages to his fiancée and brother sent in work time, the engineer was fired.

However, he took his case to the ECHR claiming a violation of his rights to personal correspondence.

Eight judges sided 7 – 1 that it was not unreasonable for an employer to verify that employees are completing their professional tasks during working hours.

The employer in this case had made it clear to employees that they were banned from sending personal messages while at work. When the employee in this case denied doing so, the investigation had to review his emails to establish the truth of the matter.

The court’s decision binds Britain because it has ratified the European Convention on Human Rights and lawyers have said it will guide the European Union’s top tribunal in future cases and rulings.

However, the monitoring of emails, websites visited on computers at work and mobile phone usage is not a new thing in the UK.

It is estimated that up to 90 per cent of jobs now involve computers and many employers have a policy in place to govern this.

It is not uncommon for an internet and email policy to be contained in the employee handbook or the employment contract.  It should make it clear whether or not employees can send personal emails from work accounts.

The policy should also be clear about the monitoring systems in place, as the use of covert monitoring will always be extremely difficult to justify.

While some employees may hold the mistaken belief that deleting files will leave them in the clear, almost all companies keep multiple back-ups of everything ever saved on their computer system.

For employees perhaps the simplest piece of advice is; do not send anything from a work account that you are not be happy for the boss to see.

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