Monitoring of Employees’ Private Messages at the workplace

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has recently ruled that companies have the right to monitor employees’ online private messages during their working time.

This case involves a Romanian employee whose employment has been terminated after his employer has found out that he was using his work-based Yahoo Messenger, not only for business purposes, but also to communicate with his friends and girlfriend.

The employer, who had been monitoring employee’s communications over several days, informed the said employee that he was supposed to use the work-based Yahoo Messenger account only for work purposes, as clearly stated in the company’s policy which the employee was provided with.

As a consequence of the above, the employee brought a claim to the ECHR stating that, by checking his confidential correspondence, the employer had breached his right to privacy.

The ECHR, accepting the employer’s argument, has stated that it is “not unreasonable that an employer would want to verify that employees were completing their professional tasks during working hours”. Since the employee’s correspondence was supposed to contain only professional communications, the ECHR has held that the employer had not monitored the said correspondence in order to spy on the employee. In fact, as stated by the ECHR, companies are allowed to monitor their employees’ correspondence with regard to work related matters.

Since ECHR’s judgments are binding on all countries which have ratified the European Convention on Human Rights, the above-mentioned ruling is also binding on Malta.

However, as above-mentioned, in terms of the ruling in question, employers are allowed to monitor their employees’ correspondence carried out through work-related accounts or through any property owned by the company.

In this respect, upon commencing new employment, employers should provide their employees with a policy which clearly regulates the use of social media, private correspondence and technologies at the workplace. In fact, employees should be made aware of:

(i) the fact that their employer may listen, watch and read most of their communications at the workplace; and

(ii) the penalties which can be applied to them in case of breach of the said company’s policy.

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