Employers need urgent guidance from the Government on their right to access staff e-mails, following a high-profile employment tribunal ruling last week.
The ruling appears to give the green light for employers to access employee e-mails, contradicting the draft code on monitoring, which outlines employer responsibilities when handling staff information under the Data Protection Act 1998.
The Information Commission (IC) has now revealed that the publication of the final version of the code - already delayed for more than a year - has been put back another two months and will now not be ready until June.
Diane Sinclair, lead adviser on public policy at the CIPD, said employers need clarification now and urged the IC to publish the code.
Last week's tribunal case, involving Barclaycard, found the company did not unfairly dismiss a staff member for excessive personal e-mail use and inappropriate content.
The draft monitoring code says employers can only open personal e-mails if there is evidence an employee is breaking the law.
Confusingly, under the draft guidance, organisations can open 'private e-mails' which might contain business and private information, as long as the 'private' section remains unread.
John Sands, HR director at Barclaycard, said guidance would have been useful.
Hannah Reed, employment rights officer at the TUC, called the delay ridiculous. "The commission has a duty to publish as soon as possible. Companies and staff need to know where they stand," she said.
By Paul Nelson
Data Protection codes
October 2000 - Consultation on the Data Protection Act's codes of practice launched
July 2001 - Conference held to reassure employers codes would be simplified and published by the end of the year
October 2001 - The 1998 Data Protection Act comes into force
April 2002 - Second draft of monitoring code is released
May 2002 - Employer bodies complain to Government over the handling of the codes
July 2002 - Third draft version of the monitoring code published
December 2002 - Richard Thomas replaces Elizabeth France as Information Commissioner
January 2003 - Further delays as commission seeks to clarify codes
March 2003 - Tribunal rules Barclaycard had right to access employee e-mail account
March 2003 - The IC admits another