Monitoring electronic communications at work – what you need to know

Apr 10, 2017 | Good Management

Many employers monitor their workers’ communications in some way, but are they doing it lawfully? There is a common belief that employers are entitled to look at any of their employees’ emails, for example, on the basis that it is an email address supplied and hosted by the employer. But it’s not quite that simple. Here are some things you need to bear in mind when it comes to monitoring your employees’ communications.

What monitoring is necessary?

You should consider what kind of monitoring is actually necessary and why you need to do it. For many employers this would only extend to ensuring they have the right to look at emails if they need to, for example if an employee is absent, or if an incident requires checking of correspondence for evidence of some kind.

Consider whether automated systems could get you the result you need without having to monitor workers’ communications. This particularly applies where the business aim is security – software can prevent access to certain websites/password misuse or similar activities.

What emails can you look at?

If monitoring of emails can be limited to addresses and/or subject headings this should be done. As a principle you should only look at actual email content if you have good reason to do so. If you do need to access an employee’s emails, you should only look for and open emails you need to for whatever purpose you are looking at the account, and should resist the temptation to ‘browse’.

What about personal emails?

If an email is marked as personal or private it would be very unlikely to be justifiable to open it, even if it is sent from/to a work email address and even if you have a policy stating that emails to/from that address may be monitored. If you allow workers to access personal email addresses from company equipment (Hotmail accounts or similar) then it is unlikely to be justifiable to look at these.

Informing employees

You should not assume employees know their emails or internet activities might be monitored. You need to make this specifically clear to them, including the circumstances under which their emails might be looked at, absence being the most common reason.

As well as letting them know that their emails and internet access may be monitored you should also let them know about what happens to that information – if you have software monitoring their internet activities, how long is the information kept for?

Have a policy in place

For the vast majority of employers, a policy on use of emails/internet/IT equipment is highly recommended. Within it you can include details of what types of activity are or are not acceptable, details of what monitoring takes place, when an employee’s emails might be opened and the potential consequences of any breach of your guidelines.

If you’d like further advice on monitoring employees’ emails or help getting a suitable policy in place, do get in touch.