It was announced the other week that it is legal for employers to monitor employee’s private communications whilst they are at work. But is this the whole story? Everyone has the right to a private and family life, but is there leeway to allow small employers to effectively ‘spy’ on their staff?

What happened?

It all started when a case was brought to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) by a Romanian employee, whose Yahoo Messenger chats had been read by his employer. Upon finding that they contained personal messages, he was sacked.

The employee, Bogdan Babulescu, argued that his right to a private life had been breached when his employer had read the log of messages between him and his partner.

However, Mr. Babulescu was unsuccessful in his case against his employer the judges at the ECHR agreeing with an earlier Romanian court ruling. The employer was seen to have taken a proportionate step, to ensure the Yahoo Messenger account, which had actually been set up for work use at his employer’s request, was being used properly. Staff had, in fact, been banned from sending personal messages at work and Mr. Babulescu was given prior warning his messages could be checked.

Cue headlines saying that employers can now legally ‘spy on their staff’.

So, can UK employers spy on their employees?

Let’s be clear; despite what you may have heard in the news, this does not give UK employers carte blanche to start snooping into their employees’ private lives while at work. No matter what their intentions may be.

Why is this? Well, as you may be able to tell in this case, the employer told their employees on more than one occasion that these messages would be checked and that the Yahoo messenger tool should not be used for personal purposes. Everyone has the right to a private life, but in this case the employer had been clear about what the account was to be used for, and this agreement was breached.

As one of the judges at the ruling stated; employers should be very clear about any monitoring moving forward, ensuring that they get employees’ ‘explicit’ consent to any new policy.

It’s also worth remembering, when looking at this case, that judgements from the European Court of Human Rights are different to those from the European Court. UK judges are not strictly bound by these decisions, but they do take them into account.

We, here at citrusHR, feel that, under the circumstances, the right decision was made, but it in no way sets precedent for companies, big or small, being allowed to “spy on staff”. It was the sensible and fair decision given the employee was fully informed that the tool was not for personal use. He clearly breached that.

I’m an employer and I want to monitor my staff’s Internet use – what should I do?

If you’re an employer, you may feel it’s necessary to monitor your staff’s Internet use, such as emails. In which case, you should make it very clear in your staff handbook that you are going to do this. And, as with any change to employment policies – you need to inform your staff explicitly of the change that has occurred. If you already have this in your employment policies though, it’s always worth reminding people of it periodically – especially with this story in the news.

Managing it in reality – beyond your policy – comes down to trust and confidence between an employer and their workforce. And of course, ongoing monitoring may not be realistic for your business. It’s expensive to keep an eye on people at all times. Rather, monitoring will likely be prompted due to a complaint or problem.

Instead of telling employees you will be watching their Internet use, use your policies to ‘reserve the right’ to monitor. This helps to build a more trusting relationship, one that employees may be less likely to want to break, and means that you can monitor when you need to.

So it would seem that the ‘Big Brother’ employer story isn’t so simple as many headlines would have had us believe. Should you be considering employee monitoring for your staff, it’s worth having robust HR documents and policies in place to ensure that you are operating within the law.

If you want to talk to someone about your employment documents, get in touch with us on 0333 444 0165 or via help@citrushr.com.
 

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