Can you check employees’ emails during unexpected absences?

August 17, 2015   //   No Comments

If an employee is off work unexpectedly and you’re worried that there might be e-mail messages that need attention, should you check the account or must you obtain their permission first?  SAIF logo 100 pixels

Even though you may be providing and paying for the employee’s work e-mail account, you have no automatic right to look at their emails. As far as the law is concerned, employees have the right to a reasonable expectation of privacy in the workplace. That includes what goes in and out of their work e-mail account.

However, under the Telecommunications (Lawful Business Practice) (Interception of Communications) Regulations 2000 (LBPR) businesses have the legal right, in certain circumstances, to intercept, record and monitor business-related e-mails without first obtaining employee consent. One such occasion is to “check messages in an employee’s absence that ‘appear ‘ to be business-related”. When it comes to e-mails, they “must appear in their unopened state to be business-related” the LBPR do not grant you unrestricted access rights.

Basically, if an e-mail appears to be personal in nature, e.g. “How was your weekend?” in the subject line, don’t open it. Even if you prohibit your work e-mail systems from being used to send and or receive personal communications, opening it would be a breach of the employee’s privacy.

Even though the LBPR allow you to check e-mails when an employee is absent from work, staff should always be made aware in advance of what workplace monitoring you undertake, its extent, and why it’s taking place.  The LBPR also cover voicemail messages but, as it’s impossible to tell whether they are work-related or personal in advance, you can just listen to them when an employee is absent. However, your staff should again know that this could happen so to cover yourself, ensure you outline your procedures in your staff policy.