Employers can monitor staff emails, but they must inform employees first

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Employers can monitor their employees’ emails, but they must inform them first, according to a landmark privacy ruling by the European Court of Human Rights.

The court ruled that while employers can monitor their staff’s emails, they must have a legitimate aim for doing so, and it must be limited to what is necessary.

The ruling from the court concerned a ten-year-old case brought by Romanian, Bogdan Bărbulescu, who was fired by his employer in 2007 for breaching company policy around using resources for personal purposes.

Bărbulescu’s previous employer had presented him with printouts of private messages to his fiancée and brother, sent via Yahoo Messenger. He had previously told his employer in writing that he only used the messenger service professionally.

Despite going to Romanian courts twice, arguing that his employer had violated his human rights, the cases were dismissed.

However, the Strasbourg court found that Bărbulescu’s employer had acted unlawfully, as they had failed to give him prior notice that they were monitoring his messages.

A statement from the European court said, “The right to respect for private life and for the privacy of correspondence continued to exist, even if these might be restricted in so far as necessary.”

“The Court considered, following international and European standards, that to qualify as prior notice, the warning from an employer had to be given before the monitoring was initiated, especially where it entailed accessing the contents of employees’ communications.”

“The Court concluded, from the material in the case file, that Mr Bărbulescu had not been informed in advance of the extent and nature of his employer’s monitoring, or the possibility that the employer might have access to the actual contents of his messages.”

Speaking to Sky News, Neil Brown, a solicitor at specialist digital law firm, Decoded Legal said, “In this particular case, the monitoring violated the employee’s fundamental rights.”

“However, the judgement recognises that there are legitimate reasons for monitoring employees’ use of IT systems, and gives useful guidance as to how employers can tackle the issue in a lawful manner.”

Alison Simpson
About the author

Alison is the Digital Content Editor for WeAreTheCity. She has a BA Honours degree in Journalism and History from the University of Portsmouth. She has previously worked in the marketing sector and in a copywriting role. Alison’s other passions and hobbies include writing, blogging and travelling.

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