Can you monitor staff emails and phone calls?

The law does allow employers to monitor employees’ work emails, internet use and telephone calls. But you need to take care to stay within the law.

Why would I want to monitor staff?

You may wish to monitor employees’ internet use, email and calls to:

  • detect any criminal activity
  • see if they are abusing work systems
  • ensure that employees are following the correct procedures and working to appropriate standards
  • investigate any allegations of misconduct e.g. if an employee has raised a grievance that they are being harassed
  • see if there has been any mishandling of confidential information.

Have clear policies in place

If you decide to implement electronic monitoring in your workplace, you need to make sure that employees are aware of the nature and extent of monitoring. In the employee’s Contract of Employment or Employee Handbook, you should state what they can and can’t do and the consequences of any violations so that employees understand the scope of the monitoring.

Internet, email and computers

In your Employee Handbook, you should make it clear that work systems are for business use, so employees should have no legitimate expectation of privacy when using their work email, internet or computer systems and will be aware that those systems are subject to monitoring.

Employers should reserve the right to look at the contents of all incoming and outgoing emails and the history of the web pages browsed using work devices for the purposes of, for example, dealing with complaints raised from customers or to ensure that the employee is acting in accordance with company rules and policies.

You should clearly state that there should not be any excessive personal use during working hours and explain how they should not use work emails to send or receive any information that they consider to be of a private or personal nature. It should also be made clear that they should not view or download offensive, violent, discriminatory or sexually explicit material.

Additionally, you should lay down your stance on the use of social media sites on work computers.

Calls

In your Employee Handbook, you also need to set out rules for calls on work phones. You may allow the work telephone system to be used for occasional personal calls, but specify that these calls must kept to a minimum and that a call recording system is in place (for example, for training, quality or service delivery purposes) and private calls may be recorded as part of this.

You should also set out if there are any restrictions on overseas calls or premium numbers.

Breaches

If employees breach these rules, the employee should understand what the consequences can be.  This should be clearly stated in the employee’s Contract of Employment or Employee Handbook.

For example, if an employee is using the work system to send material of a pornographic nature, it is likely to be treated as gross misconduct which can lead to dismissal.

Subject access requests

Under the Data Protection Act, employees are entitled to make a “subject access request” regarding personal data about themselves. This can include emails relating to them. They can request:

  • what personal data is being processed
  • what it is being used for
  • who it is being disclosed to or could potentially be disclosed to.

You can charge up to £10 to deal with this request and must comply with the requests within 40 days.

If you wish to monitor your employees’ electronic communications or want to know more about how to deal with subject access requests, call your Ellis Whittam Employment Law Adviser for guidance.  

Director of Legal Services

James Tamm

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