A Romanian engineer was wrongfully sacked after his employer read personal messages sent using an account set up for work, finds top human rights court
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled a Romanian man was wrongfully sacked due to personal messages sent via a work account, in a judgement that may require employers to more clearly warn staff that they are monitoring their communications.
The Strasbourg appeals court reversed a decision by the main ECHR court in January that had found the firm acted reasonably when it accessed the communications logs of a Romanian engineer.
Private life can’t be ‘reduced to zero’
The court sided with Bogdan Bărbulescu by an 11-to-six majority in deciding that Bărbulescu’s privacy had been breached when his employer accessed the logs of a Yahoo Messenger account set up for work purposes.
Bărbulescu’s employer fired him in 2007 after reading messages that were “intimate in nature” sent to his brother and fiancee.
The court found it was “questionable” that Bărbulescu could have had a “reasonable expectation of privacy” after being informed of his employer’s restrictive internet regulations, but nevertheless “an employer’s instructions could not reduce private social life in the workplace to zero”.
The court said that “respect for private life and for the privacy of correspondence continues to exist, even if these may be restricted in so far as necessary”.
Clearer staff warnings required
Companies can still monitor staff communications and can dismiss them for private use, but companies’ monitoring practices must be “accompanied by adequate and sufficient safeguards against abuse”, the court said.
The ECHR judges also found the Romanian courts had not struck a “fair balance” between Bărbulescu’s right to privacy and his employer’s right to enforce work rules.
They said it wasn’t clear whether Bărbulescu had been warned his communications would be monitored and that the original decision hadn’t established why the monitoring had taken place.
No further appeal can be granted against the decision.
Tomaso Falchetta, head of policy and advocacy at Privacy International, said the judgement offers “some important protections to employees’ right to privacy” which are all the more welcome “as the boundaries of work and private life become even more vague”.
James Froud of law firm Bird & Bird noted that UK judges are required to take notice of the decision.
“It will be interesting to see whether this decision opens the floodgates to similar claims in the UK and what view judges take in each case in the light of it,” he stated.
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