Employers should proceed with caution when monitoring staff internet messages despite a recent landmark EU ruling in favour of an employer who read the private correspondence of an employee.

The recent decision by the European Court of Human Rights – which upheld a Romanian court ruling against an engineer who challenged his employer after being dismissed for sending personal messages on Yahoo chat – has caused quite a stir. It also seems to have got employers and staff thinking about what their rights actually are and how far they stretch.

The former employee at the centre of the case took his claim to Strasbourg in 2008, arguing that his employer’s decision to end his contract was based on a violation of his rights to private correspondence.

The court made a landmark ruling in favour of the employer, stating that the employee had not “convincingly explained why he had used the messenger account for personal purposes”.

Breda Cullen, Managing Partner at HR Team, said that although the ruling gives employers a strong hand in managing employee internet usage, it is not an unconditional green light for widespread snooping.

She said: “Employers will welcome this ruling as it will give them confidence in their efforts to manage staff internet use in the workplace and on company devices.

“Unauthorised internet use by staff, including time spent on social media and messaging, can be very costly to employers in terms of lost working hours and decreased productivity.

“However, this EU ruling – although in favour of the employer – does not automatically give organisations a green light to actively monitor all employee communications online.

HOW TO MONITOR STAFF INTERNET ACTIVITY

“Employers should proceed with caution and, if in doubt, seek professional advice. Any action needs to be backed up with a clear policy which must be adhered to by both employee and employer.

“Where issues such as decreased productivity arise – which employers feel are a result of internet misuse – there are certain measures which can be taken to avoid risk.

“These include the implementation of a robust policy which prohibits the use of certain internet sites and messaging apps; clearly communicating this policy to all employees; and ensuring employee handbooks and contracts are fully up to date.

“It cannot be overstressed that the company at the centre of this case had a robust policy in place, one which was clearly communicated to the employee,” Breda added.