In a ruling made on 13 January, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, appeared to give all businesses carte blanche to read employees' personal emails made during working hours. The case was brought to the Court by a Romanian engineer whose employer checked his work computer, found the man was sending personal messages using Yahoo Messenger, and promptly sacked him.
This might sound quite reasonable. Employees are there to work, not chat. If you're paying a person to work, you don't want them to spend all their time messaging with friends on WhatsApp. Every employer knows how it feels to bump up against an employee who is under-performing and just not pulling their weight – and these days, rather than spending more time than most staring out the window, a troublesome employee can seem rather more engaged with their work, until you discover they're actually doing their online shopping.
But before every European business rushes to read their employees' personal emails, a note of caution. The business won in the Courts because it had a clear policy in place; one that explicitly banned all employees from using any IT resource owned by the company for personal use under any circumstances. The employee was aware of the ban – and flouted it. Even going so far as to create a Yahoo Messenger account using his work email address.
Employees do still have a right to confidential correspondence
If your HR policy and procedures specifically allow, or even just give the impression that you tolerate personal emails and messages, then nothing has changed – you still don't have the right to check your employees' computers for personal emails without incredibly good reasons. Employees do still have a right to confidential correspondence.
This case does highlight two important things that businesses need to remember, and address:
1. Lines between work and personal life are blurred
Social media and connectivity have blurred the boundaries between our work and personal life. Because we're always contactable by both work and family, the traditional lines in the sand have all-but disappeared. There is less tension between what constitutes work and what doesn't – we're more relaxed than ever about working outside the office, on our 'own' time.
But if an employer regularly emails a staff member on work business in the evening or at weekends, the employee starts to treat both work and home-life with equal weight, which can lead to them blurring the use of work time too. They start to use the work computer for personal business.
It can be a difficult balancing act for both parties – but the onus is on the company to create the right environment and culture to allow the employee to balance both work and personal life without abusing either.
2. HR policies need to be clear
Most large companies have been monitoring internet use for years, specifically to pick up on excessive internet use. However the advent of work-related social media, and multiple work email addresses, means that many companies are operating with HR policies that just don't cover these uses. This case brings back into focus just how important it is to treat HR policies and procedures as a living tool; one that is continually evolving.
Businesses can, and in my view, should be able to monitor what employees are doing and saying when they're using the company's IT equipment or devices. Some employees do misuse company time and company equipment. They do take advantage, and sometimes they do and say things online that endanger the business. This is a fact. If a business suspects that an employee is doing any of these things then I believe they should have the right to investigate an employees' work computer.
Where I do draw the line is blanket monitoring or recording of computer screens – watching employees' every move online. This is snooping of the worst kind. If we're paying someone to do a job of work, we have to understand that we're doing just that – paying them to work – we do not automatically own their every waking moment and we don't have the right to watch them like some kind of creepy voyeur.
We need to trust people to do the job and give them the freedom to do it in their own way. If we want to build a happy, successful business, we need to earn respect, and respect our employees in turn.
Rita Trehan is a business transformation specialist, and a former HR lead at Honeywell and AES Corp.