Should You Snoop On Your Employees?

For small business employers this can often be a tricky question to answer. If you have a relatively small team, possibly including family members or friends, then naturally you do not want to betray their trust or be seen as being 'nosey' in their private lives in a work environment. That said, employees accessing personal emails at work could put the business at risk from cyber threats, if this access is outside of your security settings, or a potential data breach that would land you in serious trouble.


"It's my right to know if my staff are working."


There is truth in this statement. Obviously you employ a person to complete their tasks during the working day and you compensate them with a wage. If you have doubts they aren't holding up their side of the bargain then you'll want to investigate it. You may choose to read their emails or messages if you use an online chat service.


The challenge here is whether your way of 'investigating' is fair and justified.

Back in 2016, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that employers can justify reading their workers’ online private messages.


An engineer in Romania asked the judges to rule that his employer had breached his right to confidential correspondence, but it was ultimately decided that the individual had broken the terms of his employment by sending messages on company time.

Interesting, the ECHR commented that it wasn’t “unreasonable that an employer would want to verify that employees were completing their professional tasks during working hours”.


However in 2017 a new decision was made by the ECHR which said that companies can monitor their employees’ email if they are notified in advance. In a review of the case of the engineer in Romania, an 11 to 6 ruling found that actually the engineers privacy rights had been violated. This case simply demonstrates the rapidly evolving area of the law at the intersection of technology, privacy and workers’ rights.

Back to 2019 and we see messaging platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, and so on, as very much part of our day-to-day lives. You’d probably be hard pushed to find an employee who hadn’t used one of these even within the past 24 hours. We’re all more connected than ever, and these sites and apps put communication and distraction right in the palm of our hands.


Maybe it’s something that you’ve been concerned about before. After all, it’s your job to make sure that everyone’s performing to the best of their ability, and it’s not difficult to see how modern technology could easily sway your staff away from their roles and responsibilities.


It’s worthwhile taking a little step back here

though and thinking about the bigger picture.


Does this mean that you can snoop on your employees, and access their personal conversations on a whim?


No, of course not. Legislation and regulations aside, it would be a breach of their confidentiality in most cases, and it would certainly do you no favours in terms of creating trust and fostering good relationships with your team.


The value of a little common sense is often overlooked, and it certainly applies here. But that doesn’t mean that you should bury your head in the sand. If you don’t have a clear and considered approach to the use of social media and private messaging in the workplace, then you could be leaving yourself wide open for problems in the very near future.

Not sure where to start? We can help. Here are some practical tips for ensuring that your business is prepared for bumps in the road:


  • Create a clear policy about the use of social media and private messaging in the workplace, and ensure that it’s communicated to all members of staff. This way, everyone knows what’s expected of them, and it’s easy to see when boundaries have been crossed. Make sure that you cover not only what you expect from your employees, but also your own rights and responsibilities. If it’s not explicitly stated that you can access communications, then you should err on the side of caution and assume that this would be unacceptable.


  • Be reasonable. Many employers allow some use of social media and online messaging in the workplace. Unless your staff are customer-facing and it could cause problems in terms of service, or there are safety issues to consider, then a degree of flexibility could serve you well. As long as there are boundaries in place, there’s often not really the need to enforce an outright ban.


  • Recognise that this isn’t just an HR issue. When it comes to how your business handles data and information, you need to make sure that you’re taking a strategic approach that encompasses all the company’s functions. Could it be time to rethink your practices and procedures?


If you’re dealing with a problem in this field, or you suspect that you might be in the near future, then we can help. For a no-obligation chat about how we may be able to work together, give us a call today on 01722 325 833.

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