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A recent decision of the European Court of Human Rights led to headlines about bosses now being allowed to ‘snoop’ on worker’s private emails and social media messages. In reality, this is not new – the EU Data Protection Working Party produced a working paper ‘on the surveillance of electronic communications in the workplace’ as early as 2002. However, this judgement represents a final court of appeal on the issue.

The judges concluded that it was within the employer’s rights to check a staff member’s activities while at work. They said it was not “unreasonable that an employer would want to verify that employees were completing their professional tasks during working hours.

So, what does this mean for businesses? Essentially if employers want to monitor emails or other social media they should tell staff that they are going to do it, and why. They should be clear as to what is acceptable in working hours and what is not. It is reasonable to suggest that some private use may be acceptable with longer anti-social hours being worked and the boundaries between work and private lives being more blurred.

Employers will need to consider in what circumstances they will carry out monitoring and agree a policy on this. This will involve carrying out an impact assessment to determine whether the reason justifies an intrusion into an employee’s private life. They should also decide how information obtained will be used and what safeguards are in place for workers.

It is crucial that this is communicated to employees, who should understand in which circumstances monitoring might take place, how information will be used and who, if anyone, will have access to their private messages.

It would be good practice to inform any workers if their messages are being monitored. Employers should limit themselves to looking at the address or heading, rather than all content – unless there is a valid reason for doing so. Staff should also be encouraged to mark non-work emails as personal.

As our private and work lives overlap more, our home commitments sometimes intrude on work time and vice versa. It is only right that workers should be given reasonable levels of privacy. However, it is also only fair that employers should expect staff to focus on work duties while they are at work. Employers can strike the right balance and having a clear and robust policy on place is key.

By Jeremy Harvey, Head of Employment and HR at Coodes Solicitors