Monitoring employees emails in the workplace and the right to privacy

Businesses should take note of an important case on privacy of personal communications at work that related to a private sector employer’s monitoring of an employee’s work-related Yahoo Messenger account. The employee was dismissed for personal internet use at work, contrary to the employer’s internal rules. As part of its investigation the employer accessed intimate messages sent by the employee to his fiancée and his brother. These messages were printed by the employer and used in the disciplinary proceedings as well as in the employee’s subsequent court challenge.

The case received a great deal of media coverage in the UK, some of it giving the misleading impression that the court has given employers a green light to snoop on employees’ personal emails. However, the decision does not go nearly as far as this. Most UK employers allow or at least tolerate some personal internet and telephone use at work, and there is a growing body of unfair dismissal case law highlighting the need for employers to put in place clear policies and avoid disproportionate responses.

Changes in how employees use technology are also presenting new challenges. Many employees now have smartphones that may make personal use of the employers’ systems less of a necessity (and make monitoring of their workplace activities by employers harder). On the other hand the “Bring Your Own Device” phenomenon is leading to an even greater blurring between the private and the professional in many workplaces.