Reply to all? Court rules that emails sent through work accounts can be read by employers

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The CJEU has ruled that dismissing an employee for using the company internet for personal purposes during work hours was justified and did not constitute a breach of article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights – the right to respect for private and family life.  However, the ruling, which has attracted a great deal of media attention, does not give employers blanket access to an employee’s personal correspondence.

In Bărbulescu v Romania, the employee used a work email account to send private messages to family members in breach of his employer’s internal regulations.  He was informed that his account had been monitored by the company and was sacked.  In an appeal to Europe’s highest court, the employee claimed that this was a disproportionate interference with his right to privacy.

The CJEU rejected his argument.  While finding that his rights under the European Convention on Human Rights were engaged, it identified a need to balance the rights of employees with the interests of business, finding that it was not unreasonable for an employer to monitor employees during work hours to ensure that they were using their time to work.

While the ruling may embolden employers across the EU to check their employees’ correspondence, it does not legitimise any interference with personal email accounts, which remain private.  Employers should ensure that they have a clear policy in place regarding use of internet at work for personal purposes and limit their actions to checks that are in line with such policies.  Indeed, as the Court notes in its conclusion to the ruling, ‘workers do not abandon their right to privacy and data protection every morning at the doors of the workplace’.

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