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Can my boss read my personal emails?

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Do you use your work computer for personal matters? Make sure you are clear on your employers right to access or monitor your online activity at work.

There is a contractual term of trust and confidence which is implied in every employment relationship. An employer’s monitoring activities may constitute a breach of this term, depending on the circumstances.

Your employer has a duty to inform you that they are monitoring your computer. Most employers will have a policy or declaration, or it may form part of your employment contract or handbook. The policy should explain when the information will be obtained, why it is being obtained, how the information will be used and who will have access to the information. It must clearly set out the circumstances in which you can use the computer and internet for private communications. If the policy is ambiguous then it may be unreasonable for an employer to expect its employees to recognise the boundaries.

In Grant and another v Mitie Property Services UK Ltd the employees were dismissed for excessive internet usage. However they won their unfair dismissal claim on the basis that the employer’s policy referred to use being permitted ‘outside core working times’. The Employment Tribunal agreed that this wording was not clear enough.

Your employer must also comply with their responsibilities regarding data protection. If they do not, then you may be able to claim compensation if it causes you injury or distress. An employer must balance its reasons for monitoring computers. They must be confident that their reasons are sufficient to justify an intrusion and whether their monitoring activities are proportional to meet that need.

Once there is a policy in place an employer can monitor your use of the computer and internet. If you are accessing your personal emails then your employer can see your personal information. Legislation prohibits the intentional interception of emails without lawful authority. Essentially this means that your employer cannot read your emails without the consent of both the sender and recipient. There are a number of exceptions to this rule but these do not apply to personal emails unless there are exceptional circumstances, for example they are investigating criminal activity. An employee’s private life usually extends into the workplace and you have an expectation of privacy even where monitoring takes place. So your employer should take all reasonable measures to minimise intrusion. For example your employer may monitor the recipient and heading of an email but not the content if the email is clearly personal. Most employers now have an automatic monitoring system that is triggered when a ‘danger’ word is used on the computer or internet.

Any policy should be applied consistently and fairly by your employer. It they permit employees to breach the policy but then single out one employee for dismissal, then it is likely to be unfair.

If you think your employer has illegally accessed or monitored your emails or intends to discipline you for improper use, speak to a member Employment Team.