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The right to privacy at work

A court case spanning almost a decade has come to a surprising conclusion this month, and it has big implications on employee communications at work. 

In 2007 Bogdan Bărbulescu, a Romanian engineer, was fired from his job at a sales company, after he was found to be using his work-provided Yahoo Messenger account to have conversations with his brother and intimate chats with his fiancé.

Despite the fact that Mr Bărbulescu was fully aware that his employer’s policies banned personal use of office resources, he argued that his employer had infringed his right to privacy by keeping a log of, and actively monitoring his Yahoo Messenger activity.

After a lengthy legal process, in which Mr Bărbulescu initially lost his case, judges from the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights overturned the original verdict. They concluded that the monitoring of the messages was a breach of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the right of respect for privacy, family life and private correspondence.

The precedent set by this case is an interesting one, especially in light of the rise of ‘shadow comms’ in the workplace. WhatsApp, Slack and Facebook Messenger are seeing increasing use in the workplace in an unofficial capacity, and with this new precedent the line between work and personal life will be more blurred than ever. The hard-line approach of strict communications or social media policies are now effectively dead, and a new era of work/life platforms has been ushered in.

Employers are increasingly enacting Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies, but what about Bring Your Own Software (BYOS) policies that show employees how to strike a balance between using Slack for work and to organise a night out? In internal comms, we’re guilty of slapping a ‘digital’ tag on everything, ignoring (or not understanding) how software and hardware integrate, but also have their own independent limitations. BYOD is another example of this, where we think of mobile devices as ‘digital’ but ignore the thing that actually makes them powerful – software. Employers need to think very carefully about how they enable their workforce to utilise the very best instant messaging apps, in a way that’s more likely to win them an award for empowerment, and less likely to put them on Edward Snowden’s watch list.

 

By Matt Cassell
Senior IC Consultant

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