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Privacy within the workplace, where is the limit?

Posted by
26 Jan 2016

On the back of a case where a Romanian was fired after his employers found that he was using Yahoo Messenger to contact personal, as well as professional contacts during his working hours, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that it is acceptable for an employer to monitor their employee’s private online communications.

The Romanian gentleman in question had hoped that on appeal to the ECHR, the court would rule that his employer had breached his right to confidential correspondence. The court however said that it was not “unreasonable that an employer would want to verify that employees were completing their professional tasks during working hours.”

It has been reported that in this case, the employers had clearly emphasised to employees that the internet was not allowed for anything, other than work, in which case the employer was within its rights to dismiss the employee.

It is not clear as yet whether the ruling by the ECHR applied just to forms of communication, which are designated for work uses, or whether it will have an effect on all forms of online communication during working hours.

Cases such as this emphasise the importance for both employees and employers alike to be clear on their internet policies. The BBC has reported Lilian Edwards, professor at Strathclyde University as saying that blanket bans on personal internet use at work would be unreasonable as people have a right to their own personal life whilst working, especially in this day and age, where employees tend to work increasingly long hours.

This leads to the question of how much privacy do employees expect or need. This must be a difficult question for businesses to address and react to appropriately. I imagine that a vast majority of workers who get to work early may spend those few minutes before their working day starts to check their personal emails, or respond to a text message for example. I am also sure that many people may also respond to the odd message during their working day, which of course their employers are able to monitor if these actions are done on an employee owned device.

Having read a few articles on this matter on the internet, certain studies have suggested that this ‘big brother’ monitoring has a negative impact on employees, who may feel that they are not trusted or respected by their employers, and it has even been suggested that this has led to a higher turnover of staff within some organisations.

Surely however, as an employee, you know that you are at work to work, you are not at work to spend your day responding to personal correspondence. I am sure that on the whole, the majority of employers would understand the odd email perhaps being sent from a work device under certain circumstances, or for employees to step away from their desks to take a personal call if they are working long hours, which means it is difficult to take some calls outside of working hours. Not only do employees need to respect their employers communications policies (if you don’t have anything to hide, surely it shouldn’t matter if your emails are monitored?), but I also feel that employers need to demonstrate a level of trust and respect with their employees to ensure that they do not feel that they are under constant surveillance.

Employers policies on this matter obviously need to be extremely clear from the outset, to ensure that employers and employees like know where they stand on this matter from the outset.

What are your thoughts? I'd love to hear what you have to say in the comments below. Alternatively, browse through our current employment law roles here.

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