The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that it is acceptable for an employer to monitor their employee's private online communications.
The ruling was made off the back of a case in Romania where Bogdan Mihai Bărbulescu filed a complaint after he was fired for using his work email to send personal messages.
Mr Bărbulescu claimed that his right to privacy had been infringed after his employers went through his emails without asking for permission.
Using a Yahoo Messenger account, Mr Bărbulescu reportedly then sent personal messages to both his fiance and brother during work hours.
His employer than revealed to him that his messages had been monitored and that he was in breach of company policy which prohibited the use of the messaging app for personal purposes.
The court ruled in the favour of Mr Bărbulescu's employer saying that it was not “unreasonable that an employer would want to verify that employees were completing their professional tasks during working hours."
It was also ruled that the use of Mr Bărbulescu's private messages as evidence in court was acceptable because the names of the recipients had been kept anonymous.
This sees the ECHR taking a similar stance to that of the US where previous incidents involving personal emails have resulted in the courts siding with the employer's right to look at the contents of an employee's computer.
"In most cases, courts have taken the position that employers have the right to monitor what employees do on the employer’s computer systems and equipment," says Catherine E. Reuben, employment lawyer at the firm Hirsch Roberts Weinstein LLP to Time.
It's not yet clear as to whether the ruling will have a blanket effect on all forms of online communication during work hours or whether it applies simply to forms of communication that are specifically designated for work uses.
Claire Dawson, Acting Head of Employment at Slater and Gordon: "The European Court’s decision is clear that monitoring the employee’s personal messages on company systems did engage his right to a private life and correspondence. However, it decided that the interference in this case was not breach of the Convention, relying upon findings of the Romanian courts."
“From an employment law perspective, a dismissal for personal use of company systems, where no actual damage to the employer had been done and where it appears no previous disciplinary warning had been given seems harsh. However, if the sheer volume of personal communication was very high then it might be seen as reasonable. "
Dawson goes on to point out that in the UK Courts have traditionally moved away from giving a blanket ruling on these cases, instead treating each situation on a case by case basis.
“The practical advice to employees is to check their employer’s policy and operate within it. Some employers allow for "reasonable personal use" of company systems. Others impose a complete ban." says Dawson.
Ian Brownhill, a Barrister at No.5 Chambers and employment law expert warns that this ruling could have implications for employers too saying: "Employers beware though, reading an employee's personal internal correspondence has implications under the Data Protection Act and depending on how you got by the password, perhaps even the criminal law."
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