Experts are warning businesses to set clear rules for staff on the personal use of corporate messaging systems after the European Court of Human Rights said an employer was within its rights to read a staff member's private conversations.

A Romanian engineer took his former employer to the court following his dismissal for using a work account to have a personal conversations on Yahoo Messenger. Romanian engineer Bogdan Barbulescu claimed his privacy was breached when his bosses read those conversations. But the court ruled that the employer was within its rights to monitor activity on work accounts.

Now, international law firm Eversheds is recommending that employers make their policy on the issue clear and communicate it to staff.

Paula Barrett, head of data privacy at Eversheds said: This decision provides a very timely reminder of the importance of clear communication to staff about permitted use of corporate systems and devices, and the access to and monitoring of those tools which may occur."

Ms Barrett warned that few employers make their policy clear, like the employer did in this case.

"Here, the employer had issued a clear statement that private use was not permitted. Few employers do that. In fact, a lot are silent on topic or, following the historic example of corporate telephones, permit some private use," she said.

Mr Barbulescu had argued that because some of the conversations took place via his own, personal device, they at least should not have been read. And this is something employers need to take into consideration.

"The time has come for employers to reconsider carefully whether they still allow corporate systems and devices to be used for private purposes," Ms Barrett said. "When the workforce concerned is highly likely to have their own mobile devices through which to conduct private communications, the perceived benefit is becoming far outweighed by the legal risks and burdens the employer takes on under data protection and other laws."

Mark Fletcher, employment law expert at Eversheds, said: “The key factor from an international employment law perspective is that the Romanian employer had issued a clear policy statement restricting the use of the messaging service for company use. Global employers should take the time to review all communications policies to check they include clear usage statements, which comply with local laws."

'No green light for snooping'

Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development, said: “The line between work and personal life is becoming increasingly blurred. We know that the working day rarely fits into a nine-to-five mould any more. Employees often respond to work emails on personal devices outside of usual working hours so it makes sense that, on occasion, they may want to engage in social correspondence during the working day on a work device. It’s about give and take and about trusting employees rather than creating a culture of surveillance and suspicion.”