EU court decides private messages at work can be read by employers

A European court has ruled it legal and reasonable that employers have access to the private communications of employees during work hours. The ruling was made in a case that saw a Romanian engineer, Bogdan Barbulescu, dismissed from his place of work after it became apparent that he was using an email account made for professional purposes to contact his fiancé and brother. His company’s policy banned the personal use of internet during working hours and when they questioned the engineer over these activities, he initially denied it. Managers then went on to investigate the matter, believing that they retained the right to read his conversations.

All but one of the judges came down on the side of the company, claiming that it was not “unreasonable that an employer would want to verify that employees were completing their professional tasks during working hours”. They added: “The employer acted within its disciplinary powers since, as the domestic courts found, it had accessed the Yahoo Messenger account on the assumption that the information in question had been related to professional activities and that such access had therefore been legitimate. The court sees no reason to question these findings.”

The messages were sent from a computer owned by the company, but the judges did not clarify whether their verdict would have been different had the employee been using his own device.

This verdict should have huge implications on our decision to continue using social media accounts during working hours. It is extremely common in the modern workplace for multiple people to be actively using social media at any one time. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn – all of them have become websites we use on a daily (for some, hourly) basis. But employees should now be aware that any communications they have, particularly on devices owned by employers, could potentially be read and scrutinised by managers. Mr Barbulescu himself endured the humiliation of private details about his sexual health being shared with his colleagues, as a bizarre form of punishment that went unmentioned by the judges.

These strict rules seem to suggest that an employee has no right to privacy during working hours, which is simply not the case. In order to avoid confusion, employers need to be clear about what company policy allows and prohibits employees to do, with reasonable allowances being made. In the meantime, workers are advised to safeguard themselves and their work by refraining from detailing private information in their communications, especially that which they would prefer their colleagues did not know.


Written by

Cambridge University graduate and professional career sector writer.

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