Employers can read private messages sent at work, European court rules

A European court has found that a private company was within its rights when it read an employee's personal messages he sent on a company phone during work hours and then fired him.

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The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled on Tuesday that the employee in question had breached the company's rules and his former employer had the right to monitor his messages.

Bogdan Barbulescu was fired from his position as an engineer at a Romanian firm after the company monitored his Yahoo Messenger chats for about a week in July 2007. The company showed Barbulescu had used the messenger app for personal contacts and professional ones.

The employer produced transcripts of messages Barbulescu had exchanged with his brother and his fiancée regarding personal matter such as his health and sex life.

Less than a month later, Barbulescu was fired from his job for breaching the company's rules that prohibited the use of company resources for personal purposes.

Barbulescu challenged the decision in a Romanian court, arguing that the employer had violated his right to a private life by reading his messages, but his complaint was dismissed.

In 2007, The County Court found that the employer had complied with the Labour Code rules when Barbulescu was fired and he had been properly informed about the company's policy that prohibited the use of company resources for personal purposes.

He brought the case to the European Court of Human Rights in 2008.

In its latest decision, the ECHR said it did not find it unreasonable that an employer would want to verify that employees were working on professional tasks during work hours. The court noted that the employers would need to access Barbulescu's records in order to check the Yahoo Messenger account.

"The employer had accessed Mr. Barbulescu account in the belief that it contained client-related communications," the ECHR said in a press release.



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