Most employers ban staff from using office computers for personal communication purposes during working hours and, in an important decision, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that reasonable monitoring of emails is an acceptable means of ensuring that such strictures are complied with.
The case concerned a Romanian engineer who was dismissed on the basis that he had used a Yahoo! Messenger account to communicate with his fiancée and his brother. The account was supposed to be dedicated to responding to clients’ inquiries and he was aware of his employer’s firm disciplinary policy that no use was to be made of office equipment for personal purposes.
The employer had monitored the account over a two-week period and presented the man with a 45-page transcript of messages he had sent and received. He argued without success before the courts in Romania that the monitoring of the account breached domestic law and amounted to a breach of his right to respect for privacy, enshrined in Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
In rejecting his arguments on appeal, the Court found that it was not unreasonable for an employer to verify that workers are devoting themselves to their professional tasks during working hours. Monitoring the account was, in practice, the only means of ensuring the man’s compliance with the employer’s explicit policy.
The level of monitoring was limited in scope and proportionate and there was nothing to indicate that the Romanian courts had failed to strike a fair balance between the man’s right to respect for his private life and his employer’s interests.