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Instant messaging and online communications are now an integral part of office life with private messaging platforms such as: Gmail chats, Yahoo, Twitter, Facebook, Slack and other social media channels often used throughout the day for business use. However, a ruling on Tuesday by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) confirmed that employers can monitor such conversations legally.

The ruling stems from a case in Romania where an engineer was dismissed after sending personal messages during work hours from his Yahoo account, which was also used for business use. It’s alleged that the messages sent by the worker, Bodgan Barbulescu, were of a highly private nature and as such he had asserted the court should rule that his right to confidentiality had been breached back in 2007 when the firm accessed his account without permission.

Despite this, the ECHR has said that because the account was also used for work correspondence, the company were well within their rights to access and check the account to see if Mr Barbulescu was working when he should have been. The court said that it is “not unreasonable that an employer would want to verify that employees were completing their professional tasks during working hours.” In doing so, they were doing nothing wrong in making sure that work time was not being wasted.

Crucially, it had also been brought to the employee’s attention beforehand that sending personal messages during work hours was not allowed and that messages sent during work hours could be checked. The company, who haven’t been named, did indeed check the messages and printed out a 45 page transcript of his communications, although it’s not stated how long these communications took place over.

The ruling has ramifications for the rest of the Europe for those countries who ratified the European Convention on Human Rights, including the UK.

How can employers manage the messages?

Of course, many employers expect and allow (or at least overlook) a certain amount of personal messaging during the working day on work platforms. But for those employers who take a more draconian approach, the judgment will be a welcome one. It is not uncommon practice for employers to at least reserve the right to monitor staff activity online; whether it’s the websites they visit, the emails they send and even what they type. This decision confirms that employers will also be allowed to keep an eye on other online communication platforms, such as, WhatsApp, Instagram and iMessages.

This decision does not represent blanket permission for employers to snoop. It’s important that employers clearly explain to its staff their social media/online communications policy. Employers should seek confirmation from staff that the policy has been read and understood so they can show that employees are aware that their working activities online may be checked and monitored.

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