“Always eyes watching you and the voice enveloping you. Asleep or awake, indoors or out of doors, in the bath or bed – no escape. Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimetres in your skull.”  

― George Orwell, 1984 

Nobody wants to be accused of being Big Brother, but monitoring employees’ emails is perfectly legal if you go about it in the right way. So, what should you do – monitor or not? 

Data Protection and Employee Rights 

As a business owner, you need to make sure your employees are carrying out their work effectively. You also have a responsibility to ensure they’re not using work email to do things they shouldn’t. Like sending offensive emails or sharing unprotected data. At the same time, you don’t want to encroach on your employees’ privacy or demonstrate a lack of trust.   

Before we consider whether you should monitor employees emails, let’s take a look at whether you can.  

The Information Commissioner’s Office states that, in general, it is considered intrusive to monitor your employees’ emails.   

That’s because employees have a right to respect for a private and family life under article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights. This means people can send personal emails from a work computer and email address and expect them not to be monitored or read by employers.   

But what about work email?  

It’s perfectly legal for employers to monitor employees’ emails as long as certain criteria are fulfilled. This includes being: 

  • clear about the reasons for the monitoring 
  • satisfied that the monitoring arrangement is justified by real benefits 
  • clear with employees for the reasons, extent and nature of any monitoring that’s in place 

If you decide to monitor, you’ll need to warn employees that emails sent from a work computer may be observed. A good way to do this is to include suitable wording in your contract of employment. 

Before implementing a monitoring policy, employers must carry out an assessment of the proposed activity to establish 

  • the reasons for monitoring staff and the benefits that this will bring 
  • any negative effects the monitoring may have on staff 
  • whether the monitoring can be achieved through any less intrusive means   
  • whether the monitoring is justified, taking into account all of the above 

Think you might have sufficient reason to monitor? Then the next thing to consider is proportion.  

In-depth or Light-touch? 

Depending on your business and sector there may be highly valid reasons for monitoring staff email. For example, financial services organisations often monitor communications to ensure sensitive data is not being shared, accidentally or otherwise.  

However, all businesses considering email monitoring should act proportionately and fairly to achieve the right balance between organisational needs and employee privacy.

In most cases assessing the date, time and recipient or sender of an email will help you determine whether it relates to work or not. Reading private emails, particularly those that contain confidential information is likely to breach an employees’ privacy.  

Automated email monitoring can analyse huge amounts of email traffic, spot inappropriate content and deliver reports for managers. This distances managers from the emails themselves and raises a red flag indicating that further investigation is required.

Before jumping straight into an in-depth review of an employee’s inbox, it can often be a good idea to hold a meeting. By discussing how the individual has been using email and the kinds of information they’ve sent you can decide on a proportionate response.  

The Potential Impact of Email Monitoring  

Monitoring employees’ emails can create an atmosphere of distrust if implemented and acted on incorrectly.  

In some sectors, like those with significant data protection requirements, employees are likely to be more understanding of the need for monitoring. However, organisations where data is less sensitive may not find employees so tolerant. 

Should any breach in policy be identified, managers’ next steps are key to how your monitoring policy is perceived. Managers using the information inappropriately will bring the policy intro disrepute. However, used effectively – to curtail inappropriate behaviour or prevent action being taken against the business – employees will likely support the policy.  

Coupled with well-handled conversations and a genuine respect for employees’ privacy, email monitoring can be helpful for businesses. However, history has shown most people don’t appreciate their emails being monitored so introducing this policy requires careful handling.

If you do decide to go down this route ensure you’re acting legally, in line with your policy and for the good of your employees as well as the health of your business.  

For help navigating email monitoring and other employment contract issues, contact Crosse HR on 0330 555 1139 or at hello@crossehr.co.uk.