Firms need guidance after e-mail tribunal

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

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

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Confusingly, under the draft guidance, organisations can open ‘private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

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

March 2003 – Tribunal rules Barclaycard had right to access
employee e-mail account

March 2003 – The IC admits another two-month delay

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