While a lot of people may occasionally sneak out a personal email or use a web-based messenger to speak to a friend while at work, employees in Europe are about to find that the risks that come with sending private messages during office hours may be too high. After ruling on a case yesterday, one of Europe’s top court has said that companies have the right to monitor workers’ online communications.

The ruling relates to a case involving the dismissal of a Romanian engineer in 2007. Bogdan Mihai Barbulescu was asked by his employer to set up a Yahoo Messenger account to answer customer queries, but he was fired after the company discovered he was using it to communicate with his fiancee and brother.

Barbulescu’s company prohibited using the messaging service for personal purposes and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) dismissed the engineer’s argument that the firm had violated his right to confidential correspondence.

The Strasbourg court said that it was “not unreasonable that an employer would want to verify that employees were completing their professional tasks during working hours.”

The judges in the case also defended the decision by Romania’s courts to allow transcripts of the engineer’s communications be used against him, saying: “It proved that he had used the company’s computer for his own private purposes during working hours.”

The Romanian courts did, however, withhold the identities of the people Barbulescu was communicating with, striking a “fair balance” between respect for privacy and the interests of the employer, said the ECHR.

The ECHR’s judgments are binding on countries that have ratified the European Convention on Human Rights, and will set a precedent for future cases involving employee monitoring.

Some legal experts worry that the ruling will mean EU workers may see their privacy rights diminish as employers gain the power to look at employees' personal online content - including emails - if accessed while at work. It may also influence companies to make workplace decisions based on private communications.

The case highlights the fact that employees should always check their company’s policy on personal messages. While some firms allow for a reasonable personal use of company systems, others completely ban the practice. Now, in the EU at least, bosses may start demanding to read everything workers have sent during office hours, be it private or otherwise.

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