The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has issued an important decision relating to how employers monitor private activity taking place in the workplace.

A worker in Romania was dismissed for sending private messages using an employer’s computer system.  The fact of the messages being sent was known because the employer used surveillance software to monitor the computer activity.  The local court in Romania had decided that the business acted lawfully, but that decision has now been overturned.

The ECHR reflected upon  the intimate and private nature of the communications, deciding that the worker’s right to privacy had not been adequately protected.  The original court had not established why monitoring had taken place and whether the employee had been warned that his communications would be monitored in this way.

The ECHR commented that the worker would not expect complete privacy in a workplace setting, but the court went on to state that “an employer’s instruction could not reduce private social life in the workplace to zero”.

The ECHR has confirmed that the case does not prevent communications being monitored, but there must be a clear reason for it and safeguards against abuse.  It also appears to me that employers must be very clear with workers about what is or is not permitted, and in what circumstances monitoring may take place.  The law in the UK involves consideration also of the Data Protection Act and the Interception of Communications Act, which are UK domestic provisions, but the ECHR decision is a reminder of the importance of human rights and the fact that there is a line which should not be crossed by an employer.

I have been involved in many cases involving workers being dismissed in relation to the use of social media accounts such as Facebook.  Such cases involve consideration of human rights, including the right to privacy and freedom of expression.  The ECHR case is a welcome boost to the position of individuals, when in so many respects employers are seeking to exert control over a broader range of circumstances impacting upon workers, both inside and outside of the workplace.