A common employment problem is the suspicion that an employee is spending huge amounts of working time on private online messages. It’s one of those frustrations that you might think you can’t do anything about as the employer. Maybe you feel uneasy that, were you to look at what the person is doing online while at work, you’d be breaching their human rights to privacy in some way....
What if you find that the employee (an engineer as it happens) has been using Yahoo Messenger to chat not just with his professional contacts but also with his family. You monitor his communications and are able to present him with a 45-page transcript of his messages, including exchanges with his fiancee and his brother about his health and sex life.
And what if your company’s internal regulations state that it’s strictly forbidden to use computers, photocopiers, telephones, telex and fax machines for personal purposes.
And what if, after you’ve dismissed him, the engineer brings a claim that the company has breached his right to confidential correspondence by accessing his messages, and should have excluded all evidence of his personal communications on the grounds it infringed his rights to privacy.
In fact, this is a case that the European Court of Human Rights ruled on last week.
The judges said that the employer has the right to check that an employee is completing their work and that the engineer had breached the company’s rules by sending personal messages on its time. It ruled that the employer was within its rights in monitoring and reading the employee’s Yahoo Messenger chats that he sent while he was at work - it was not “unreasonable that an employer would want to verify that employees were completing their professional tasks during working hours”.
However, the ECHR also made clear in its judgment that it’s not acceptable to carry out unregulated snooping of staff’s private messages. In this case the employer had a clear, absolute ban on using its IT resources for personal matters: when the employee denied doing so, the employer could only properly investigate by reading his emails. Many employers allow, or at least tolerate, some personal email use at work, but this wasn’t the case here. If an employer reads personal emails without justification and has no clear policy allowing them to do so, they could easily find themselves on the wrong side of the law.
So providing it’s reasonable and proportional, employers can monitor internet usage to check that employees are working during their working hours. The Human Resource can develop a clear policy for your employee handbook about internal rules on internet usage while at work and any monitoring. This will set expectations and provide a sound framework if there are ever any issues.
If it’s an extreme example as this one, it’s important to follow a proper disciplinary process too, giving the employee the information from the monitoring and the opportunity to respond.
For HR advice on employment problems such as private use of the internet during work time, as well as clear policies about IT and Internet Usage for your employee handbook, contact The Human Resource on firstname.lastname@example.org or 07884 475303.