Europe rights court backs employee fired over private messages
European Court of Human Rights rules companies need to ensure employees are aware that management is monitoring their work email.
Companies need to make sure that employees are aware in advance of management monitoring their work email accounts, the European Court of Human Rights ruled on Tuesday in a landmark privacy case.
In a judgment in the case of a man fired 10 years ago for using a work messaging account to communicate with his family, the judges found that Romanian courts failed to protect Bogdan Mihai Barbulescu’s private correspondence because his company had not given prior notice that it was monitoring his communications.
The decision by the Grand Chamber of the Strasbourg-based court in France – the apex body comprising 17 senior-most judges – modifies a ruling in January last year when the court found that employers were justified in snooping on their employees.
The judges said that Barbulescu’s bosses and Romanian courts had “not adequately protected (his) right to respect for his private life and correspondence.”
In a judgement published on the court’s website, it said that it was unclear whether Barbulescu had been warned about the monitoring, or whether he was aware of the extent of the intrusion into his private life.
It also said that Romanian courts had failed to determine why the monitoring measures were justified. The judgement said it was unsure whether there were other ways of checking on him “entailing less intrusion” into his private life.
Outside view of the European Court of Human Rights on December 16, 2010 in Strasbourg, eastern France. (AP)
The case revolves around messages sent by Barbulescu over the Yahoo messaging platform, which the software engineer was required to use to liaise with clients.
He was sacked after being found to have also chatted with his fiancee and brother on the system.
He argued that his employer invaded his right to privacy by spying on messages which included details about his health and sex life.
In an initial decision in January last year, the ECHR ruled that it was not “unreasonable that an employer would want to verify that employees were completing their professional tasks during working hours.”
But the Grand Chamber agreed to reexamine the case at Barbulescu’s request.
The judges held a hearing on November 30, 2016 at which it heard arguments from experts and the European Trade Union Confederation.
The union group criticised the initial ruling last year, judging it to be too harsh.
It recommended that a verbal warning should be the first stage of any disciplinary process with dismissal only possible for repeat offenders or serious misconduct.
Experts also say that companies should also have a clear policy governing the use of professional software and the internet during work hours.