Companies must tell staff about email checks, European Court rules

In a landmark privacy case heard by the European Court of Human Rights, a Romanian man fired by his company for breaching their email policy was overturned.

Ten years ago, Bogdan Barbulescu was fired by his company for using his work email account for personal correspondence.

Barbulescu was presented with printouts of emails he sent to his brother and fiancée on Yahoo Messenger as evidence of his breach of conduct. He had previously told his employer in writing that he only used the email service for professional purposes.

A Romanian court ruled in favour of the employer, prompting Barbulescu to take the case to the European Court.

On Tuesday in Strasbourg, an 11-6 majority ruled in favour of Barbulescu, saying that the Romanian court had failed to protect Barbulescu’s right to private life and correspondence.

The Court ruled that the company violated his private correspondence by not giving prior notice that his correspondence was being monitored, the extent to which it was being monitored and the possibility of the company gaining access to the content.

In addition, the court said that the company, who was not named, had not provided sufficient evidence to justify monitoring Barbulescu’ correspondence. There was no suggestion that Barbulescu had exposed the company to risks such as damage to its IT systems or liability in the case of illegal activities online.

“This set of requirements will restrict to an important extent the employers’ possibilities to monitor the workers’ electronic communications,” confederal secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, Esther Lynch, said.

“Although it does not generally prohibit such monitoring, it sets high thresholds for its justification. This is a very important step to better protect worker’s privacy.”

James Froud pointed out that ruling could lead to more clarity on the scope of corporate discipline.