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Think your boss can’t read your Facebook messages? Think again.

18.01.2016

Picture the scene: it’s 4 o’clock on a Friday afternoon in January. You’ve finished your report, made all your calls and finally cleared the last of the festive decorations from your desk.

What to do in that last hour before the weekend? A glance over the shoulder to check the HR manager isn’t behind you… and suddenly you’re on Facebook.

“It’s all right though”, you think as you compulsively scroll through your newsfeed. “No-one will check up on me. Even if they do, they can’t see who I’m talking to or what I’m saying.”

Wrong. In January 2016, a court ruled that your boss can check communications from work IT equipment – even if you send it using your personal Facebook page or home email.

Bogdan Mihai Bărbulescu found himself on the wrong side of a decision by the European Court of Human Rights, which decided his employer was justified in monitoring his messages from a personal Yahoo account. Bărbulescu had been told in advance that his communications from work IT equipment could be monitored, but that he had nevertheless used it to talk to family members.

His employer used the conversations as evidence that he was spending time on personal matters during work hours. They subsequently sacked him in 2007. Technology may have changed since then, but the ruling is still important, and highlights some useful points for employers and their staff.

I don’t want my boss reading my Facebook chat, what can I do?

Make the effort to find out what your organisation’s policies are – and stick to them. Most contracts and staff handbooks will contain rules about IT and social media in particular – read yours! It might be a bit boring, but it’s important to know how your employer will treat your communications, private or professional.

These rules will probably cover cases like the one above – personal emails and social media accounts accessed from a work smartphone, tablet or computer – but could also govern use of work hardware for personal matters out of hours. If you Whatsapp your partner at 9pm from your work iPhone, your employer might be able to read it.

Of course, communications sent from personal IT equipment stay private – even during work hours. Your manager won’t be able to requisition your personal phone from you to check your texts. However, you may still fall foul of rules about using personal devices at work – again, check your contract!

Finally, working for a public body means your email communications may be subject to Freedom of Information requests – so anyone could view them, including Guardian journalists who recently revealed communication between government officials about Boris Johnson’s unpaid bar tab.

What does this ruling mean for employers?

Employers still need to be really clear in advance with staff about what they expect and what they can check. As a minimum, they should provide rules about IT and social media in contracts and staff handbooks. But they can go further to highlight this issue to employees – during inductions for new starters, on posters around the office and on internal intranets.

After all, it’s in employers’ interests for their staff to be aware of the key standards of behaviour expected. If an employee has to be disciplined or sacked, then that inconveniences the organisation as a whole – so it’s better to head off such problems with clear information before they occur.

Further information

If you’re concerned about your right to privacy at work, speak to our employment solicitors in Bristol. We’re experts in employment contract law and can help you if you have questions about your employment contract.

As well as representing employees, we also provide employment law advice to employers and businesses. For further help and advice, call 0117 325 2929 or complete our online enquiry form.

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