“So, employers now have a ‘snoopers’ charter’? Workplace snooping on staff email and web browsing is OK?”
“Actually, no… despite all the recent hype.”
“What’s happened then? What’s reality?”
The European Convention on Human Rights states everyone has the ‘right to respect for private and family life’ (Article 8). Recently, an employee in Romania challenged his company in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) because he was dismissed from his role for sending personal emails using his employer’s systems during the working day.
The ECHR ruling considered that the employer had acted lawfully when inspecting private messages on a business messaging account. The ruling stated that the response was reasonable and proportionate for checking that work tasks were being completed during work hours. Since the UK has ratified the Convention on Human Rights the ruling is binding across the UK.
Many commentators have hailed this as a fundamental change to employers’ rights declaring that workplace snooping is now OK. Even some solicitors would claim that UK employers now have a right to routinely monitor employees’ traffic – and indeed should do so. Such overarching claims are misinformed and certainly somewhat ignorant of the bigger picture.
In reality this ruling means business as usual because UK law already allows companies to monitor employee communications, but only under certain circumstances, and within the provisions of the Data Protection Act. The ECHR ruling reaffirms that company communications can be monitored if there is a valid reason to do so. If there is reasonable belief that company communications are being used inappropriately then monitoring, or reading emails and social media, is an appropriate response to gather evidence to prove or disprove the suspected abuse.
And indeed, many organisations monitor to prove compliance with regulatory requirements. This is particularly true in sectors like insurance where proof of good advice given comes from monitoring client-agent discussions. Provisions to monitor must be stated in the employee contract of employment and elaborated in the company policies and procedures.
But like all things in management, there’s more than one perspective. The legal perspective is fairly clear. There is a provision to use surveillance, but only with just cause and only for as long as is needed. The organisational psychology angle on workplace snooping is however very different.
Employees who are forbidden from using company systems feel cut off from the world. Where traffic is monitored, they feel that management doesn’t trust them. This is particularly true where management also forbid the use of personal communications devices in the workplace. The psychological contract – that unwritten agreement between manager and staff – is weak, reducing employee commitment and heightening intention to quit. So, from an organisational psychology perspective, management, snoop at your peril!
But let’s not just dismiss the ECHR ruling because it is illustrative. What actions should firms take now about workplace snooping?
To enable surveillance, company handbooks, policies and procedures should detail the rules that apply to the use of Internet, computer and other ICT systems. A statement should also be made in those documents regarding the circumstances when system monitoring will take place. Our advice is, where possible, to permit reasonable private use of systems, be ready to snoop, send signals to staff that you may snoop, but use snooping with caution. If you don’t think your current documents and processes are fit for purpose, or if you want to discuss your specific business situation, give us a call.