Did you know that 64% of employees admit to using the Internet at work for things that aren’t work related, or that an American survey found that 28% of employers had fired someone for email misuse?

Here in the UK, what are the rules that an employer needs to play by and do you have the right to read employee emails?

Can you Secretly Check Employee Emails?

You have a responsibility to let an employee know that you’re monitoring their email use. It’s best to claim your right to do this as soon as possible, by mentioning it in an employee handbook or in each person’s contract.

You need to let your employee know:

  • When they can use email for private communication and when they can’t.
  • What kind of private communication they’re allowed to use their email address for.
  • Why and how you’ll monitor their emails.
  • What they can expect to happen if they’re found to be misusing their email account.
  • Whether or not you store any related information, and how long for.

How Much are you Allowed to Monitor?

Employees are protected by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 which, in simple terms, states that you can’t intercept their emails without being authorised to do so by both the recipient and the sender.

You are allowed to monitor the content of business emails to detect unauthorised use, to check that procedure is being followed and to prevent criminal activity, but these allowances don’t apply to personal emails. Therefore, if you’re in any doubt as to whether a communication is for business or personal use, you should avoid intercepting it. This is the case even when personal emails are being sent to and from a business account.

For your own protection, only look at the email address and subject line of any email that you’re checking. Don’t read further.
Ideally, you’ll have an automated system in place if you’re monitoring employee emails. This will further reduce the risk of accidentally reading too much.

Can you Store Email Data?

As is the case with all employee data, it’s important to follow the Data Protection Act 1998. In accordance with this law, you need to make your employees aware of the information that you’re collecting and storing. Employees need to know how this information is going to be used.

Can you Ban all Personal use of a Business Email Address?

With sufficient notice, you can impose a complete ban on personal emails. This doesn’t often happen, but is an option that you can take if you think it’s necessary. Unless the ban has always been in place, you need to give people time to adapt to the change.

You should also be aware that incoming emails are somewhat out of the control of employees, once they’ve been allowed some level of personal use. They may stop sending out personal emails, or using their business email address on forms, but places that already have their business email address can contact them at any time. You’ll need to be fair regarding incoming emails, including promotional and marketing messages.

Where Should you Set the Limit?

Exactly what you allow your employees to do is a choice for you to make. However, you must find a fair and realistic balance.
You don’t want someone to take advantage, using their business email account for dozens of personal conversations each day, but most employers also allow some level of private email use.

It may be that you allow personal email use as long as it doesn’t interfere with work. If someone’s involved in long and distracting conversations then this would be an issue, but if they’re sending a few short messages then this could be more easily overlooked.

Many employers find that allowing limited amounts of personal communication can actually improve employee productivity. Alternatively, you might set the limit at something more specific – for example, not allowing emails with adult content or abusive language.

Can you Help your Employees to Follow the Rules More Easily?

The lines between business and personal use can be easily blurred. As an employer, it’s your responsibility not to get the two confused. You can make the distinction easier by asking employees to use a certain subject line when sending a personal email. This could be as simple as adding the word ‘PERSONAL’ to the start of each private email subject line, or choosing a slightly more subtle symbol such as a star or percent sign.

Who Will Win if a Case Goes to Court?

There are numerous examples of employees going to court, feeling that they’ve been treated unfairly regarding the personal use of emails during working hours (or using company equipment). The European Court of Human Rights has a track record of siding with the employer, but UK courts currently work on a case by case basis when deciding what’s fair and what’s not. Ultimately, the clearer you can be in your contracts and policy documents, the better.

If you set very clear rules about what you accept and what employees aren’t allowed to do, then it’s easier to defend your position if those rules are broken. If you decide to write a vague policy using words along the lines of ‘must not interfere with work’, then you might have a harder time explaining what actually counts as interference. When, exactly, did an employee cross the line?

Why do you Need to Read Employee Emails?

Whilst you do have some right to monitor employee emails, it’s wise not to do so without good reason.

Work and home lives are blurred more than ever before. Many employees remain available on what should be their own time, so understandably they’d expect that the opposite applies during their contracted working hours. If employees are expected to answer calls and emails through the evening, or to do an extra bit of work at home, then is it fair that they can order their groceries online, or send an email to their partner, whilst they’re working in the office?

The key is to find what’s comfortable and fair for everyone involved. Decide if you really need to monitor employee emails, and choose whether your company will benefit from a flexible policy that requires a certain level of trust, or rules set in stone to offer a little more protection.