Work emails private unless policy states otherwise


Employers must have policies in place if they want the ability to read their workers’ emails and online chats, says Toronto employment lawyer Barry Goldman.

“Unless there is a firm policy that says you may not use your computer for any personal use, employees are entitled to have an expectation of privacy, and the employer may not read or look at their personal emails,” says Goldman, apartner with Shibley Righton LLP.

According to a recent ruling, the European Court of Human Rights says a Romanian firm — which fired a worker after finding 45 pages worth of personal messages in just over a week in 2007 —  justifiably accessed his work Yahoo Messenger communications, CTV News reports.

The human rights court ruled the employer was acting within its rights when it accessed the employee’s private messages to check if he was completing his work, the report states.

The court notes this case was different to some successful privacy protection cases, as the worker had been given prior warning that communications could be read by management and that sending personal messages during work hours was banned. Previously, another worker had been fired over this.

Even if there was no policy on computer use, the worker likely could have been fired for gross dereliction of duty, Goldman tells

“If you’re spending that much time on personal emails or Twitter or other social media, then you’re neglecting your job, and, save for extraordinary circumstances, that could be seen as gross dereliction of duty,” he says.

Although many companies are enacting policies proscribing computer use at work, the vast majority of employers still don’t have them, Goldman says. He encourages his employer clients to implement Internet use policies.

“Without such a policy, an employer will have no right to intercept and read an employee’s personal emails,” he says.

Goldman notes, however, that, with or without a computer use policy, employers would still have the right to intervene and notify police if work computers are being used for criminal purposes, such as for child pornography.

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