Have you ever vented your frustrations with a colleague over work email? Talk to friends and family about a particularly frustrating client? Bad-mouthed the boss in a group chat? Although you may feel like you are conversing with your friends in the same way you would over Facebook, this is not the case. It’s important to understand that your communications at work might not be private.

Your employer owns the business’ internal IT systems, and this provides them with the right to monitor your communications. At one point or another, we are all guilty of sharing information with our colleagues that we should have kept to ourselves. Below, we explain how employers can monitor employee emails as well as the European Court of Human Rights recent decision on this matter.

Is it Legal to Monitor Employee Emails?

On face value, monitoring staff communications can seem to breach the Privacy Act. Consequently, this contentious issue has undergone several reviews and at present, there is no legislative instrument explicitly addressing the issue.

Under New South Wales’ Workplace Surveillance Act, an employee should be notified in advance before an employer monitors their computers or communications.

Why You Should Carefully Read Your Employment Contract

An employee’s employment contract typically includes the business’ standard policies and procedures for monitoring company provided Internet and devices.

It would then be prudent for employers to have a defined set of monitoring policies, and the subsequent disciplinary action should an employee breach the policy. As there is no specific legislation governing this issue, it is important that employers take care in clearly drafting their policy.

The EHCR’s Decision

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has made a ruling in favour of a Romanian employer, allowing the employer the right to read their employee’s private messages. Although the case has been moving through various Romanian Courts since 2007, the ECHR handed down their judgment earlier this year.

In this case, an engineer was tasked with downloading Yahoo messenger to communicate with clients and for work purposes. He used messenger to contact his brother and fiancé, leading to his subsequent termination for breach of the company’s workplace policy, namely using company resources for personal use.

The employer argued the policy was unfair, and that it was unreasonable to verify whether the use was outside of work hours. He further argued the policy breached his privacy. The ECHR, however, held that the employer acted within its power by way of the workplace policy and resulting disciplinary action.

Key Takeaways

Ensure that you read and understand your company’s policy for monitoring Internet use and devices, as well as any potential disciplinary action. Also, make sure that you adhere to your workplace’s email use policy – it’s tempting to use chat to air your frustrations, but it could cost you your employment.

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What do you think about the European Court’s decision? Tag us on Twitter @legalvision_au and let us know.

Sophie Glover

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