Why your boss can now spy on you at work

A court ruling means employers could keep closer tabs on their employees.

Do you ever send messages online while you’re at work? Personal ones? Intimate discussions and conversations you’d rather your boss wasn’t privy to? Then it could be time to stop.

The European Court of Human Rights has handed down a landmark ruling stating that it was reasonable for a company in Romania to read messages an employee had sent when he was supposed to be working. It’s a ruling that could set a pretty serious precedent and affect employee rights here in the UK.

The case went to court after the employee sent messages via Yahoo Messenger when he was meant to be working. It wasn’t a personal Yahoo account; he had set it up at the company’s request to keep in touch with clients.

However, he then used the account to message his fiancée and brother about personal issues, including his sexual health (poor bloke, he’s been named in some newspapers, so now it’s not just his boss, the world knows he has some concerns). He was then fired for breaking company rules on work resources.

The case ended up at the European Court of Human Rights because the employee argued that he should have a right to confidential correspondence. However, the court said the employer had not been unreasonable in wanting to check that its staff were “completing professional tasks during working hours” and that it had only checked his messages because it assumed they were professional.

Is that really likely to affect us?

Some news sources are making it sound as if employers will be able to hack their team members’ Facebook accounts with the blessing of Europe. However, what actually happened is that the man was using a company account on company time and via a company computer to chat. You might think he was making it a bit too easy for his boss to sack him.

However, it does set an important precedent; your company may well be able to justify checking what you’re doing online if you use work resources to do it. And several legal experts have already pointed out that employees should not assume their personal messages can remain personal as long as they use company equipment or time.

The European Court of Human Rights’ judgements will be binding on all countries that have ratified the European Convention of Human Rights. So this one case could have some pretty far-reaching consequences.

Dos and don’ts of social media at work

We’ve compiled some handy rules should keep you safe from embarrassment – or worse. Feel free to add your own suggestions using the comments below.

DO take company rules seriously. Almost every company will have an ‘internet usage’ policy and it may well forbid personal use of social media or even the internet in general. Don’t assume it’s safe to do so, even if others are. You might end up being the one they make an example of.

DON’T use company equipment for your social media habit. That’s a good rule even outside of working hours. If it’s a company laptop or phone then it’s a good idea to keep it for company business, unless you have specific permission to use it yourself.

DO keep in mind what your colleagues have access to. If your work friends can see your Facebook or tweets then don’t moan about the boss or make comments about skiving – it’s just too risky. Remember that news story about the man who told Facebook he was pretending to be sick to get the day off work, only for his boss to fire him in a comment?

DON’T share anything offensive publicly. Funny joke? Extreme political opinion? Anything that might go viral and result in you being sacked at the behest of a baying Twitter mob? If your social media account is remotely connected to your work or even your name then it’s a good idea not to be too controversial online. It may help Katie Hopkins earn a living but she’s a fairly extreme case.

DO be mindful of posting stuff online during company hours. If your colleagues eventually work out that you’re sharing links to videos of sneezing pandas while they are working hard finalising that deal, you’re not going to make many friends.

DON’T publicly share stupid photos. You know the saying ‘dress for the job you want’? Well, create a social media profile for the job you want – or at least don’t let your boss see pictures of you drunkenly falling off a bar stool. Lock down your social media or create groups that ensure your colleagues only see you at your best.

Social media casualties

A freedom of information request from the Press Association found that 828 police officers got in trouble for social media mishaps between 2009 and February 2014, and 9% of those ended up resigning, retiring or being dismissed. Some had posted images of themselves with weapons on Facebook, some shared pictures of themselves in “compromising positions” and others were found to have expressed racist views via public forums.

At least one had to resign over “excessive and inappropriate use” of the internet during working hours, highlighting that bosses have not always looked particularly kindly on workplace web use even before this latest ruling.

A few years ago a father-of-three was sacked by Argos for complaining about his work after his holiday. He wrote on Facebook that he was “back to the shambles that is work” and was fired for gross misconduct.

And many people will remember the case of Justine Sacco who sent a tweet deemed offensive before boarding a plane and publicly lost her job before she had even landed. She claimed it had been a joke, but her employer did not take kindly to being publicly shamed for having a racist employee and swiftly gave her the chop.

Do you use social media at work? Has it ever landed you in trouble? Have your say using the comments below


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