Should bosses be able to snoop on staff emails?

18 January 2016 -


Insights takes a look at the hotly debated issue after a European Court of Human Rights ruling that confirms managers can read private messages sent from work

Jermaine Haughton

From CCTV in offices to internet and social media monitoring, British workers are under constant surveillance from their bosses. And a new ruling made by The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) judges last week suggests that employers have the right to read personal emails and instant messages sent by staff at work.

An engineer in Romania, who was sacked by his bosses in 2007 for using a professional Yahoo Messenger account to send messages to his brother and fiancée during work hours from a work computer, claimed his employer had breached his right to confidential correspondence when it accessed his messages.

This is despite his employer banning staff from sending personal messages at work.

However, judges, sat in Strasbourg, France concluded on Tuesday that his employer had not caused any violation as it was not "unreasonable that an employer would want to verify that employees were completing their professional tasks during working hours".

Although the case did not introduce any new rules, its conclusion has caused a stir in the media, and among the business community, as it has acted as a stress test for those that already allowed similar surveillance by employers in some circumstances.

As Britain is one of the nations that has ratified the European Convention on Human Rights, UK judges must take into account the ECHR's decisions during the legal proceedings of identical cases, but are, importantly, not bound by them.

Legally, employers are allowed to spy on the electronic communications of staff in the workplace as long as the monitoring relates to the business, the equipment being monitored is provided partly or wholly for work and the employer has made all reasonable efforts to inform employees that their communications will be monitored.

Therefore, staff should be cautious to the fact their usage of Facebook, iMessage, WhatsApp, Skype and emails can be accessed by bosses, if it from a work computer, phone or account.

Renate Sampson from the campaign group Big Brother Watch said: “If you have any device that’s company owned, it isn’t yours. Don’t have a private conversation on it.” Employee surveillance can go even further though, with some employers using applications such as Websence to monitor the Internet traffic of entire enterprises or programmes like Spector Pro, which can keep detailed logs of keystrokes and SMTP and POP sessions, screenshots, instant messages, and URLs visited on individual computers.

Recently, employees at British newspaper the Daily Telegraph discovered that the company had installed heat-sensing monitors under their desks to monitor how often and long workers were away from their desks. A subsequent backlash from staff resulted in the company removing the desk monitors before the end of the day.

But why do employers feel the need to spy on their workers, many of which are fully-grown adults with extensive qualifications and experience?

Monitoring employee electronic communications is often justified by bosses on the grounds of health and safety, customer relations or regulatory obligations, but it is also used to make sure individuals are doing their job.

When Facebook and other social media platforms became extremely popular almost a decade ago, it caused a problem for many bosses and HR managers, with some staff distracting themselves by using social media during work hours, while others were reprimanded for making inappropriate comments about their employer or members of staff, or releasing confidential and sensitive information online.

Therefore, most employers tend to enforce social media policies, including checks on comments made, within staff contracts, mirroring those related to more traditional communication channels, which make it clear that, while employees are free to have their own opinions, comments made on social media platforms should be within the law, should not be offensive and should not undermine the company or brand.

Similar situations can also occur through email and instant messaging apps.

As well as lowering productivity and focus, employee-forwarded email and jokes potentially create a hostile work environment, and some employers feel snooping on staff behaviour is the best way to deter staff from making sensitive and controversial remarks, as well as create a record of information which could be used to defend the company in any potential claims of harassment, verbal abuse and discrimination in court.

Critics argue that the prospect of managers reading personal emails and communications, sent from the office, as a worrying invasion of their privacy and a restriction on their freedom of expression. In particular, there is major concern that employer checks on individual social media, messaging and email accounts can quickly become a fishing expedition.

Equally, without context, many employees have fallen victim to their messages being interpreted as a slant on the company or personnel, and lost their jobs. People have lost jobs because of their political opinions and religious beliefs.

Furthermore, such managerial practices can create a cautious and resentful workplace atmosphere. Thus, it can actually hurt morale and have a ripple effect on the business' overall performance.

One study found that electronic monitoring improved the performance of "high ability workers", but hindered the performance of "low ability workers". But regardless of skill level, the research also found that monitoring increases stress to a high degree and that being individually monitored stressed workers out even more than if they were being monitored as a group.

British Trades Union Congress general secretary Frances O'Grady told The Huffington Post: "Big Brother bosses do not get the best out of employees. Staff who are being snooped on are less productive and less healthy."

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