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A landmark ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has reinforced the importance of employers ensuring their HR policies clarify staff usage of social media sites at work. 

Barry Warne, partner and head of employment at hlw Keeble Hawson, says that it is essential that business owners and managers make their policies clear – and also remind their employees to keep their personal and work lives separate.

ECHR judges sitting in Strasbourg recently handed down their decision that a Romanian company that read a worker’s Yahoo Messenger chats while he was at work was within its rights. Their ruling confirmed a domestic court’s decision that an employer is entitled to use information sent from company computers or smartphones, after the engineer had challenged his sacking for using social media at work.

In appealing, the worker had hoped that the court would agree with him that his employer had breached his rights to confidential correspondence when it inspected the messages to his brother and fiancée. However, judges ruled that the engineer had broken company policy because the employer had banned its staff from sending personal messages at work.

The judgement – which affects all EU countries, including Britain, that have ratified the European Convention on Human Rights – means that it is not unreasonable for an employer to verify that staff are engaged in work related activities during working hours.

Of great significance, though, is that the court also made it clear that unregulated snooping on employees is unacceptable. It called on employers to state clearly to staff what information they could collect from company computers and smartphones.  

Barry Warne said: “Employers’ attitudes to logging on to social media in the workplace vary widely. Many organisations allow some personal use on company time and equipment, while others operate a blanket ban. It is therefore advisable to have a clear set of rules in place that all staff are made aware of.

“Employees should then be asked to acknowledge formally that they know, understand and agree with these policies. Effective communication, consultation and negotiation ahead of any new policy are vital and professional support may be needed in its introduction and implementation.”

For more information contact Barry Warne at hlw Keeble Hawson on 0114 252 1437, email [email protected] or visit