Justifiable intrusion? Would you snoop on your staff?

Privacy law is a difficult area, and it raises complex legal and moral questions. I was reminded of this by an article in the Independent about British Airways’ monitoring of staff communications (emails and phone calls) during their acrimonious dispute with cabin staff and their union, Unite, some years ago. British Airways listened in to conversations between their staff and the Union.

I’d always supposed such monitoring to be illegal, but it turns out that it isn’t, as long as the devices (computers and phones) are the property of the company, in this case British Airways’ property. Legal opinion, quoted in the article, was that as long as no adverse and unjustified discrimination of the monitored individuals can be shown to result from monitoring, then there is no case to be made against it.


But it’s wrong, surely, to intrude into personal communication unless there is reason to suspect a serious crime or breach of trust. Monitoring staff communications with union officials is unwarranted. It is sneaky, dishonourable, unfair, intrusive.

My own policy is that you must allow your staff privacy. Even if it’s possible I do not intercept the communications of employees in my company, nor do I track the websites they access. I might count how many emails they receive and send (I did this once to get a sense of who was working hardest!) but I would never monitor recipients and sources, nor look at content. I might track the total number of times that a website such as Facebook is accessed (sometimes this gets out of hand!), but I don’t track individual usage.

Ours is a consulting company and I take it for granted that everyone works hard, in good faith. I do not intrude. But this rule should be the same for all kinds of company. Just because it is legal to monitor emails and conversations doesn’t make it right.

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