Privacy at work? you have none!

So last week the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that an organisation which read its employee’s personal messages sent while he was at work was within its rights to do so. Shock, horror! (Actually this is poorly timed sarcasm on my part!).

From the volume of social media responses to this topic you would think that employees actually believe they were protected from this intrusion in the first place! Privacy at work? you may have none! Unfortunately or fortunately depending on your personal viewpoint we live in an ever increasing “big brother” society. If most employees took the time to read their terms and conditions of employment and the policies relating to their employment, they would find that it is increasingly quite common for employers to state within those terms that they reserve the right to monitor their employees’ emails, telephone calls and other forms of communication whilst at work or while using company issued equipment. Other forms of communication include social media sites, chat engines etc. This is even more likely to happen if you are known to work for the company on these sites and have friends or followers who conduct business with or have some interface with the company.

The smart employer usually adds a caveat that employees may use the internet or telephone for personal use during their breaks or lunch times but this does not mean such use may not be monitored.

In this particular case which has caused such furore a Romanian Engineer was dismissed by his employer for using yahoo messenger to send personal emails during working hours. The account was created for work purposes at his company’s request.  He took his employer to court siting breach of his rights to personal correspondences and breach of both the constitution and criminal code by accessing his personal communications. His claim was rejected on the grounds that his employer had complied with dismissal regulations and that he had been informed of the company’s regulations. He appealed this decision claiming that his personal emails were protected under article 8 of the Human Rights legislation which gives individuals the right to respect for private and family life, the home and correspondence. His appeal was dismissed on the grounds that the employer’s conduct was reasonable and that they were entitled to carry out monitoring to find out whether a disciplinary breach had occurred.

So what does this case teach us both as employers and employees?

As employers we need to be transparent about how and when employees will be monitored. If monitoring does or will or can occur employees should be informed of this and preferably sign to say they have both been informed and understand what this means. Employers also need to be mindful that a culture of monitoring can demotivate the workforce and foster a culture of mistrust and undermine engagement in the workforce. Get the balance right and remember that employees in general spend the vast majority of their lives at work and it may be wholly impractical to ban all personal correspondences at work.

Employees should become familiar with their company’s rules on use of work systems for personal communications and follow them! Knowledge is power, do not fall foul and on the wrong side of a disciplinary table because you failed to read your contract and terms and conditions of service!

We live in a world with little or no privacy. If you can’t defeat the system, learn to work with it. You have the power to keep your private life secret. So don’t use your employer’s systems, devices, time or structures to conduct your private life if you wish to retain that right to privacy.

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