Introduction

Employers are entitled to read employees' private messages at work, rules ECHR

A firm that read its employee's personal Yahoo Messenger chats was within its rights to do so, according to the Judges of the European Court of Human Rights ("ECHR").

The Case

Bogdan Barlulescu had been using his Yahoo Messenger account at work for messaging personal contacts, in addition to professional contacts. He was dismissed following the discovery by his employer that the account contained personal messages. Mr Barbulescu has taken his case through domestic courts all the way to the ECHR where he hoped that the Judges would rule in his favour and pronounce the company's action of dismissing him as unlawful due to a breach of his right to confidential correspondence.

Unfortunately for Mr Barbulescu, the Judges felt that the firm had not acted unlawfully as it had thought that it was accessing a work account, not a personal account, when the messages were discovered.

The ECHR dismissed Mr Barbulescu's case stating that it had not been "unreasonable that an employer would want to verify that employees were completing their professional tasks during working hours".

Mr Barbulescu's employer had banned its staff from sending personal messages during working hours. As such, the employer was within its rights to access the messages. The Judges further felt that this was a proportionate action given that the employer did not access any other information contained on Mr Barbulescu's work computer. Mr Barbulescu had also had a prior warning about personal correspondence and had been warned that the company would check his messages.

Commentary

Although this will not be a popular judgment, it is entirely legal. The employers were transparent in their policy that the internet was not to be used for personal use and the employee was in clear beach of this policy.

As the divide between work and personal life becomes more blurred through the use of remote working and the increase in working hours, blanket bans on personal internet use will become increasingly unpopular. It is important for employers to ensure that they have clear policies and procedures in place for employees regarding the use of the internet and employer owned devices for personal communications. It is particularly important to ensure that employee-monitoring policies are lawful, appropriate and effectively communicated to employees.