The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has reversed a ruling on the firing of an employee for sending private messages at work. Romanian national Bogdan Bărbulescu was sacked from his position as a sales engineer in Bucharest in 2007 for using his work Yahoo Messenger account for personal correspondence with his brother and fiancee.
His electronic communications were monitored by the company, who presented him with a 45-page transcript of his private messages as proof of his transgression. Bărbulescu challenged his employer’s decision before Romanian courts on the grounds that they had violated his rights to correspondence. His complaint was rejected, however, by the Bucharest County Court in December 2007, stating that the employer had complied with the dismissal proceedings provided for by the Labour Code; that employers were entitled to set rules for the use of the internet, which was a tool made available to employees for professional use; and that Mr Bărbulescu had been duly informed of the company’s regulations.
A further appeal was rejected in June 2008, and an application was lodged with the European Court of Human Rights in December of the same year.
Bărbulescu made his complaint by arguing that his former employers had violated Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the right to respect for private and family life, the home, and correspondence) by monitoring his electronic communications. The courts originally ruled in favour of the employers in January 2016, before the case was referred to the Grand Chamber at Bărbulescu’s request.
The Court then confirmed that Article 8 was applicable in his case, concluding that his communications had been covered by the concepts of “private life” and “correspondence.” It also criticised Romania’s national courts for not examining whether or not Bărbulescu had been adequately informed of the company’s policy of monitoring private communications.
In a question and answer section on its website, the ECHR pressed that the ruling does not mean employers cannot monitor the private communications of their employees.
“However, the Court considers that States should ensure that, when an employer takes measures to monitor employees’ communications, these measures are accompanied by adequate and sufficient safeguards against abuse,” it reads.
Companies must adequately inform their employees of any monitoring of electronic communications, and the degree of intrusion into their privacy must be considered.