Using the Internet at Work: Who’s Watching?

It is safe to say that almost every employee in Ireland has access to internet and email in the workplace in order to complete their everyday tasks. Unfortunately, it cannot be denied that such use of internet and email often results in misuse. Such misuse can lead to many difficulties, and may result in employers being sued, as under Irish law, employers are often liable for the actions of their employees at work. This has led to the controversial question of whether employers are permitted to monitor their staff’s use of email and internet, and if so, to what extent?
The Courts have ruled that employers have the right to monitor employees’ use of email and internet, provided that they do so in a fair and reasonable manner. There have been many recent incidents involving employees being disciplined, and even dismissed as a result of their misuse of the internet at work. These incidents serve as a stark warning to employees that the websites they are surfing and the emails they are sending may be viewed by their employers.
Who can forget the recent scandal surrounding the circulation of sexist emails in financial firm KPMG? This involved the circulation of an allegedly private email conversation between a number of male employees rating the appearances of their female colleagues on a scale of one to ten. Naturally, bosses at KPMG were far from impressed, and suspended the male employees involved.
Another example of misuse of email and internet at work involved the circulation of an email containing violent images of the Iraq/U.S war amongst employees of an insurance firm. These images caused much disturbance to one employee who began screaming at her desk upon receipt of the email. Employers were able to access and inspect the offending email and suspended the employee who was responsible for the circulation of the email.
Though employers have a right to monitor their staff’s use of email and internet, this right is not without its restrictions. In the recent case of Copland v. UK, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that though an employer has the right to monitor his/her employees’ use of email and internet, employees must be warned that such use is to be monitored. In this case, the internet use of an employee of a secondary school had been monitored without her knowledge or consent. The
Therefore, it is clear that employers indeed have a right to monitor the internet and email usage of staff. However, it is not permitted by law to do so without the knowledge of an employee. Such monitoring must be fair and reasonable in order to strike the balance between an employer’s right to supervise his/her staff and business, and a employee’s right to privacy.