Court in Europe Rules Employers Need to Inform of Checks on Emails

Companies must inform their employees ahead of time if their email accounts at work are monitored and those checks must not infringe unduly on worker’s privacy, ruled the European Court of Human Rights Tuesday.

In a final judgement in a court case of a man who was fired a decade ago due to using a work email account for communication with family, judges found that courts in Romania did not protect the private correspondence of Bogdan Barbulescu because his then employer did not give him prior notice that it was monitoring the communications he was having.

Privacy of emails is now a very delicate issue as more people are using work email addresses to make personal correspondence, even as the employer demands to have the right to monitor the email and usage of computers to ensure staff uses the emails appropriately.

In general, courts have sided with the employer on the issue.

The company presented Barbulescu with printouts of the private messages he had sent his fiancée and brother in Yahoo messenger as the evidence it needed of him breaching the company ban on personal use.

He previously had told the employer through written correspondence that he only used their service for work related purposes.

In Strasbourg, the European court ruled 11-6 that judges in Romania, in backing his employer, failed to protect his right to privacy and correspondence.

The court concluded that Barbulescu was not informed in advance to the nature and extend of the monitoring by the employer or the possibility it might gain access to content in his messages.

The court ruled as well that there was not sufficient assessment of whether legitimate reasons existed to monitor the communications of Barbulescu.

There was not any suggestion he exposed the company to any risks like damage to IT systems or any liability due to partaking in illegal activities while online.

A secretary with the European Trade Union Confederation said that the set of requirement will put a restriction to an extent on the possibilities of the employer to monitor the electronic communications of its employees.

Although it generally does not prohibit the monitoring, it sets higher thresholds for it being justified and is an important step in better protecting the privacy of workers, the secretary added.

This ruling could lead to additional clarity on the scope of discipline at a corporate level, said a human resources lawyer in Europe.

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