INSIGHT: Employers can read employees’ private messages
... but only in limited circumstances.
Can employers check an employee’s personal messages to ensure compliance with employment duties?
Can an employee expect an employer to respect their private life and correspondence at work?
These were two of the issues considered by the European Court of Human Rights in the Romanian case of Barbulescu v Romania.
Background to the case
Mr Barbulescu sent and received personal messages to his fiancée and brother using his business email account that had been set up for him to respond to clients’ enquiries. His employer’s company regulations forbade the use of the account for personal messages. The employer had discovered the personal usage when checking the account for professional messages and confronted Mr Barbulescu. When he denied his employer’s allegation, the employer showed him with a 45-page transcript of his messages (which showed personal usage) and terminated his contract for breach of the regulations. In response, Mr. Barbulescu argued that by looking at his private messages, the company had violated his right to privacy of correspondence.
The issues found their way to the European Court of Human Rights which found that the employer had not breached Mr. Barbulescu’s right to privacy. In essence, an employer can, in certain circumstances, monitor their employee’s personal correspondence without breaching the employee’s right to privacy in order to check that they are complying with their employment duties.
It was important in this case that the employer’s regulations forbade employees from using the email account for personal reasons and that Mr Barbulescu was aware (although this was in dispute) that accounts were monitored for such usage.
A note for employers
Employers in the UK must not interpret this European decision as permission to monitor their employees at work at will: an employee’s right to respect for their private life remains intact. Employers should therefore:Subscribe to our newsletter
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