Does monitoring staff comms count as illegal spying?

Companies need to look at what data they monitor, why they’re monitoring it, and how they inform employees that the data is being monitored

You would think that it’s entirely reasonable to check on your staff to see if they are spending their time at work doing company work – and not using the company IT systems for personal use.
However, a recent ruling from the European Court of Human Rights disagrees and calls into question an employer’s right to spy on their staff.
This case was about a Romanian engineer who set up a Yahoo Messenger account for work purposes, but also used it to message his brother and fiancée. Company policy said online accounts couldn’t be used for personal purposes.
Although he claimed he had abided by the rules, when the employer checked, they found the personal messages and fired him. He then appealed to the Romanian courts who agreed with the employer. The disgruntled engineer then went all the way to the European Court of Human Rights.
Why is this a big deal?
The European Court of Human Rights ruled that the business was wrong to fire the employee using his online activity as evidence. The engineer hadn’t been told his online activity would be monitored by the company and his human rights had therefore been violated.
However, they did not award him any compensation, saying the judgement was sufficient. But of course, that is little comfort for the company, who will have suffered the costs of defending this in both courts.
Is this a surprise?
Not entirely. There has been a similar judgement before, but this one is interesting and timely. The balance between work and private life is becoming increasingly blurred. Companies need to look at what data they monitor, why they’re monitoring it, and how they inform employees that the data is being monitored.
With the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) coming into force in May 2018, now is the ideal time to look at data monitoring to make sure you’re complying.
What should I do?
Make sure your employment contracts and handbook are clear. They need to strike the balance between making sure employees are sensible with business assets, versus spying on personal conversations.
Get in touch with your local office and speak to an HR adviser to see how this might impact your business.

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Ian heads up the HR Dept Edinburgh & the Lothians team. The HR Dept specialises in helping SMEs with everything to with employment, through a local and personal service delivering practical and pragmatic advice and support. With nearly 30 years HR experience, Ian has a wealth of experience in helping businesses to ensure success through their people, be legally compliant and handle tricky people issues. As a business owner himself, Ian understands the challenges that come with running and growing a business. He is known for his ability to explain complex concepts simply and to make learning fun and enjoyable.