You may have read in a recent BBC report that the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that an employer did nothing wrong when reading a worker’s private Yahoo Messenger chats sent from a work account, employment solicitors Hatton James report.

EU rules that employers can read private messages of staff 1The employer had clear rules that permitted it to check employee’s online activities and they offered adequate protection against unfettered snooping, they said.

The Romanian employer learned that the employee was using the chat feature for personal as well as professional use and sacked him. It was held to be proportionate to check the logs as part of the disciplinary investigation because the policy warned that this was a possibility.

The worker also complained about the employer reading messages sent from his private Yahoo account but the judgment did not deal with this claim.

The case is relevant to UK employers because under the UK is bound by similar rules – to be found in the Data Protection Act as interpreted for employers in the Information Commissioner’s Code of practice on monitoring at work.

This doesn’t actually change UK law but reminds us that employers should be clear about their monitoring policies in the employee handbook and disciplinary policy. Employment solicitors routinely advise their clients that being clear about employees’ privacy expectations at work means they arm themselves with a defence against claims of unfairness during the disciplinary process and against claims of data protection breaches that can drive up the cost and hassle of dealing with employee issues.

The law is complicated in this area but employers should only start looking into private communications if they have grounds to suspect breaches of disciplinary policy or have some other good reason and even then their monitoring should go no further than necessary for their investigation.

Employment solicitors are increasingly seeing that many disciplinary cases are being brought based on facebook comments made by employees about employers, managers and colleagues.