Employee's personal messages at work can be read by employers

Judges have ruled that employers can read employees’ personal messages sent via chat software and webmail accounts during working hours.

Mr Barbulescu was an engineer in Romania. At his employer’s request he created a Yahoo Messenger account for the purpose of responding to client’s enquiries. His employer had made it clear that it could check the messages at any time and had also banned all of its staff from sending personal messages at work.

In July 2007 Mr Barbulescu’s employer reviewed his messages and they found that he had used his Yahoo Messenger account for personal purposes, contrary to internal rules. His actions were in breach of his contract of employment and he was dismissed.

Mr Barbulescu argued that his employer had breached his right to respect for private life and confidential correspondence when it accessed and read the log of messages. However the Romanian County Court dismissed his complaint on the grounds that it had been necessary for his employer to access his records and that this was proportionate because his employer did not access other information stored on his work computer. Further the employer had given a prior warning that it could check his messages. It was held that the employer acted within its disciplinary powers since it had accessed the Yahoo Messenger account on the assumption that the information in question had been related to professional activities and that such access had therefore been legitimate.

Mr Barbulescu appealed to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) contending that the employer’s conduct had disproportionately infringed his right to respect for private life and confidential correspondence. The ECHR held that whilst the right to respect for private life and confidential correspondence had been engaged, the employer’s monitoring of his communications in accordance with workplace rules had been reasonable in the context of disciplinary proceedings. The Romanian Courts had therefore acted appropriately in balancing the employee’s rights against the interests of his employer. In the ECHR’s view, it was not unreasonable for the employer to seek verification that employees are completing professional tasks during working hours. Further, the employer had only accessed his account in the belief that it contained client-related communications only.

The decision was handed down on Tuesday 12th January 2016 and it binds all countries that have ratified the ECHR, which includes Britain.

If you have any questions in relation to this article or any HR/ employment related matter, please do not hesitate to contact our HR/employment solicitor Claire Berry at Claire.berry@leedsday.co.uk or on 01480 442040.

Barbulescu v Romania


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