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Can an Employer Monitor Staff Emails or Not?

The issue of private emails in the workplace has been hotly debated this week following a decision by the European Court of Human Rights to reverse a court ruling that a company had been correct to sack an employee for sending private emails via his employer’s messaging system.

The employer in question had used surveillance software to monitor the computer activity of its staff and had strict policies in place concerning the use of company systems for private messages. A Romanian court ruled last year in the case of Barbulescu v Romania that the company had been within its rights to sack a member of staff for breaching those rules and sending “intimate” messages to his brother and fiancée.

This week The European Court of Human Rights decided that Mr Barbulescu’s right to privacy had not been “adequately protected”. Questions were asked about whether he had been made aware of the full extent of the surveillance or the reasons for it.

So does this mean that employers have no right to monitor staff emails or restrict private emails at work?

This was a complex judgement, which considered the balance between the rights and expectations of an employer and the employee’s right to privacy. At the end of the day – and quite appropriately considering that we are discussing emails – it all comes down to communication. The employee in this case was aware of the rules about personal emails but his employer had not made it clear that monitoring was taking place or why. Had the employee been aware of this fact, he may not have shared such personal information via the work system.

This ruling doesn’t mean that employers cannot restrict private messaging at work or monitor the email activity of staff. However, as an employer you have a duty to make sure you are absolutely clear with your staff about email policies. If you have surveillance software in place are your employees fully aware of this and the reasons behind it? Additionally, do they know what is expected of them in relation to personal devices and their use at work? If you haven’t yet put policies and procedures in place, this case serves as a timely reminder to do so.

If you would like Boardside to review or provide an appropriate policy please email

The full judgement from this case can be read here: