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The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled that companies can monitor employees’ online communications during work hours.
The ruling relates to the dismissal of a Romanian engineer in 2007 for flouting a company policy that prohibited the use of his professional Yahoo messenger account for personal purposes.
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Bogdan Mihai Barbulescu was asked by his employer to set up the account to answer customer queries, but was dismissed after the company discovered he was using the app to communicate with his fiancée and brother as well as his professional contacts.
The ECHR dismissed the engineer’s argument that the company had violated his right to confidential correspondence.
“It is not unreasonable for an employer to want to verify that employees are completing their professional tasks during working hours,” the court in Strasbourg, France, ruled.
The court said the employer’s monitoring was “limited in scope and proportionate” and that the employee had not “convincingly explained why he had used the Yahoo messenger account for personal purposes”.
The court also noted that the company had accessed the messages in the belief that they contained professional communications.
The ECHR concluded that there was “nothing to indicate that the domestic authorities failed to strike a fair balance” between respect for privacy and the interests of the employer.
The court also defended the decision by Romania’s courts to allow transcripts of the engineer’s communications to be used against him in court, saying: “It proved that he had used the company’s computer for his own private purposes during working hours.”
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The ECHR’s judgments are binding on countries that have ratified the European Convention on Human Rights and will be used as a guide for future cases involving employee monitoring and privacy.
Some legal experts said the ruling would break down any strict divisions between employers’ ability to look at professional and private content online.
However, others said employers should be careful what conclusions they draw from the ruling and recognise that the decision is largely based on the fact that the employee had claimed that the communications were of a professional nature.
The ruling highlights the need for workers to beware of the pitfalls of using social media and email at work, said Claire Dawson, an employment lawyer at Slater and Gordon in London.
Some employers allow for “reasonable personal use” of company systems, while others impose a complete ban, Dawson told Bloomberg News. “The advice to employees is clear: check what your employer’s policy is and operate within it,” she is quoted as saying.