Lawyer Charlotte Giller on how two new acts will affect an employee's rights to privacy at work.
The rules governing employees’ right to privacy at work are in the process of a shake-up. Employers hold vast amounts of personal information on their staff and often assess their performance by monitoring and recording their telephone calls. Although English law has traditionally offered employees limited rights to privacy at work, these will be considerably strengthened by the Human Rights Act (due to come into force in October). The Data Protection Act 1998, which came into force on 1 March, has already strengthened their rights in this area.

What difference will the laws make?

The European Convention on Human Rights states that: “Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and correspondence.”

One indication of how this might work is given by the case of Alison Halford vs Merseyside Police Force. Assistant chief constable Halford claimed that her office calls were being intercepted because her employer was trying to listen to her conversations with lawyers about a sex discrimination claim that she had brought against the force. She had previously been told that she could use her office phone to deal with her case.

The European Court of Human Rights found that Halford was entitled to her privacy and the employer had to stop tapping her phone.

Does that mean that an employer has no right to eavesdrop on phone calls?

Not exactly, but employees should be told (by staff notice, e-mail or by incorporating the notice into contracts of employment) if their calls are being monitored, and why. If this is done, any employee using the system acknowledges the possibility that their calls may be monitored.

Employers should limit the reasons for call monitoring. It is one thing to check that the customer services staff are being polite, but quite another to investigate an extortionate phone bill by listening in to an employee’s calls. Misuse of office telephones can be detected by itemised call reports, rather than recording.

If an individual finds out that an e-mail about them is going around the office, they can demand to see it

What about personal calls?

Employers should consider drawing up clear guidelines on personal calls. These could outline the nature and timing of calls; whether permission is required first, who will pay for them, whether employees are required to keep a record of their personal calls and any disciplinary steps that may be taken if the guidelines are breached.

Employers could also consider providing some phone lines, perhaps payphones, that employees can use in the knowledge that these will not be monitored.

What about e-mail and information downloaded from the Internet?

The rules are the same. An employer should inform staff that the firm will be keeping an eye on what goes through the e-mail system. Usually, guidelines on the personal use of e-mail and the Internet are included in the company handbook.

How can the employee monitor what information the company has on them?