Your email isn’t as private as you think

Employers must respect the privacy of employees’ communications, but there are exceptions.
You may think that private emails from private accounts, and private messages from private social media accounts, are just that — private. You may also think that your employer cannot discipline you for their contents. You may be wrong.
The European Convention on Human Rights, which is incorporated into UK law, states that everyone has the right to respect for their private and family life, their home and their correspondence. While only public bodies must expressly comply with this, it is relevant to all employers, as courts and tribunals must interpret, as far as possible, all legislation consistently with the right. There are only limited situations where it may not apply — for example, if there are national security concerns.


In most instances, therefore, emails and messages received and sent through private accounts outside work would be considered private, and employers would have no justification in scrutinising them. But there could be exceptions. What if an employee were to send a sexist email outside work to a friend? Supposing the employee encouraged the friend to forward on the email. What would be the position if, down the line, the email somehow ended up in the employer’s inbox? It may be that the courts would deem that the employee could not have expected privacy.