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Employer permitted to access private emails and use as evidence in dismissing

The employee was dismissed for breaching his employer’s rules on the personal use of the internet at work. On his work-related Yahoo account were found to be messages to his brother and fiancée about his health and sex life, which were used in the disciplinary and subsequent court proceedings.

The employee argued that there had been a breach of his right to respect for private life and correspondence.

The case went to the European Court of Human Rights which found against the employee. Although workers have a reasonable expectation of privacy at work, this right is not absolute. The employer had a total ban on the private use of work equipment, and this was an important fact. It had accessed his Yahoo account (set up for work purposes) believing that it contained business-related messages only, and for the purpose of checking that he was fulfilling his work duties. This was a proportionate interference with his rights. The employer had not accessed other data and documents stored on the computer, and the monitoring was therefore limited in scope and was proportionate.

The case is a reminder to employers that while they are entitled to check their employee’s activities, there needs to be a clear monitoring policy that is communicated and carried through.

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