European court rules that employers can read employees’ private messages at work
A recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights confirmed that an employer was within its rights to read a worker’s private Yahoo Messenger chats sent while he was at work.
Bogdan Mihai Barbulescu, a Romanian engineer, was dismissed for sending messages to his fiancée on his private Yahoo chats, through a Yahoo message account which his employer had instructed him to set up. His employer became aware that he was using Yahoo Messenger for personal contacts, as well as professional contacts.
The judges said that he had breached the company’s policy and so his employer had a right to check on his activities. Because his employer believed it was accessing a work account, the judges held that no error had been made. Mr Barbulescu’s appeal was subsequently dismissed, with the court saying that it was not “unreasonable that an employer would want to verify that employees were completing their professional tasks during working hours”.
The court’s decision is binding on Britain because it has ratified the European Convention on Human Rights and this ruling will guide the European Union’s top tribunal in future cases. However, under UK human rights laws, judges must take into account decisions of the European Court of Human Rights but are not bound by them.
It is important to bear in mind, however, that despite the somewhat sensationalist headlines surrounding this case, it does not mean that employers now have carte blanche to read their employee’s personal emails. As was the case before this ruling, employers should always be careful when seeking to exercise an apparent contractual right to “snoop” on their employees.