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Should employees only have eyes for work during working hours?

Online communications have become an extension of us. During working hours many employees will have access to social media, messaging and other forms of communication as we aim to better reach our clients and colleagues.

The occasional personal message to family and friends forms part of our normal way of life and for the most part is accepted in the workplace with many employers choosing to trust employee’s not to take advantage of such a policy. However some employers do not permit personal messaging at all during working time and monitor employee’s work computer systems to ensure no breach occurs.

A recent ECHR ruling in which an employee was dismissed by his employer for sending his fiancée private messages via his Yahoo messenger account (set up for work purposes) has brought the issue of privacy and personal messaging in the workplace to the forefront of discussion.

In this case the employer had a clear policy banning personal communication during work hours and the employee was fully aware of the policy. The employer used transcripts of email messages exchanged between the employee and his fiancée as evidence of his gross misconduct, leading to his dismissal.

The ECHR held that employers are entitled to read employees private messages on email and other forms of online communication on work devices. Significant importance was drawn to ensuring that company policies on monitoring are made clear and that the employee is fully aware of such policies.

In the UK it is legal for an employer to insist on access to an employee’s online communications while at work, however if an employer wishes to enforce such policies they must be clear about their policy and their intent to monitor employee communications and the monitoring must not infringe the employee’s reasonable expectation of privacy.

Whether you impose a complete ban or permit limited incidental personal communications during work time, it is very important that the employer clearly states and explains any company rules that would allow them to check their employees’ online activities. As an employer you must ensure that your company handbooks and contracts of employment confirm what employees can expect.

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If you find you are caught between an overly social employee and their personal communications and need advice on your approach to dealing with such matters and ensuring your contracts/ handbook properly cover your device policy please contact Tom Evans on 0151 230 1217 or email

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