Employers can read workers’ private messages sent via chat software and webmail accounts during working hours, judges have ruled.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) said a firm that read a worker’s Yahoo Messenger chats sent while he was at work was within its rights.
Judges said he breached the company’s rules and that his employer had a right to check he was completing his work.
Such policies must also protect workers against unfettered snooping, they said.
The judges, sitting in the ECHR in Strasbourg, handed down their decision on Tuesday. It binds all countries that have ratified the European Convention on Human Rights, which includes Britain.
The worker, an engineer in Romania, asked the court to rule that his employer had breached his right to confidential correspondence when it accessed his messages and subsequently sacked him in 2007.
His employer had discovered that he was using Yahoo Messenger for personal contacts, as well as professional ones. Because it believed it was accessing a work account, the judges said, the firm had not erred.
They dismissed the man’s request, saying that it was not “unreasonable that an employer would want to verify that employees were completing their professional tasks during working hours”.
The judges said: “The employer acted within its disciplinary powers since, as the domestic courts found, it had accessed the Yahoo Messenger account on the assumption that the information in question had been related to professional activities and that such access had therefore been legitimate. The court sees no reason to question these findings.”
However, they said that unregulated snooping would not be acceptable and wrote in their decision that a set of policies must be drawn up that clearly define what an employer can collect and how.