Can an employer read employees emails?

If an employee is absent from work, for sickness or other reasons, there are times when employers need to read their emails in order to ensure work is carried out.  However, is there a legal right for employers to read employees emails and listen to voicemails?  This video explores the options. If you are in need of employment law advice, please contact us

Our video contains captions, but if you prefer, you can read the transcript below:

I was recently asked by a client if they could check the emails of a member of staff who was off work ill. They had had an unexpected absence for a few days and this member of staff had not forwarded their email and phones to a colleague.

So is there a legal right to check emails and voicemails of employees? At first consideration, the law grants employees a reasonable expectation of privacy in the workplace and as such, no automatic right exists and permission must be obtained from the employee.

However, there are certain circumstances where businesses can intercept, record and monitor emails without first obtaining consent. The right is limited, but is granted by the Investigatory Powers Regulation 2018. This law states that you can “check messages in an employee’s absence that appear to be business related”. It doesn’t say that you have unrestricted access. But you can read emails that “appear in their unopened state to be business related.”

This means that you shouldn’t view anything that has already been opened, although it may be difficult not to. Or you shouldn’t read emails that on the face of it are clearly personal, and that’s even if you have a policy in place that states employees are prohibited from using the work emails account for their own purposes.

When it comes to voicemail messages, there is of course no way of knowing whether they are work related or personal until you’ve listened to them. The law states that they understand this and confirm that you can listen to voicemails when employees are absent.

I would, however, suggest that employers inform staff that workplace monitoring may be undertaken and have a policy in place. But in short, if an employee is absent and an email appears to be business related, you can open it without the employees’ prior consent. Anything that’s clearly personal and not related in any way with work should not be opened. Voicemails, on the other hand, can be listened to.



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