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Thursday, 30 August, 2001, 10:42 GMT 11:42 UK
How much privacy do we need?
Bosses who phone staff at home or open employees' e-mails could be taken to court for invasion of privacy, UK executive representatives have warned.

The Institute of Management says ringing staff at home to discuss work matters could represent a breach of the Human Rights Act.

The institute also warned that unauthorised vetting of e-mails and phone calls, could be considered an invasion of privacy, even if employees are thought to be sending personal messages during work hours.

The warning follows the introduction in October of controversial legislation allowing firms to tap phone calls or read e-mails sent by members of staff.

Should we have more privacy? Do your bosses call you at home or read your emails? Should we be making personal calls or sending personal emails during work hours?

This Talkig Point has now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.

Well, I work for a news agency. It is sometimes mandatory that I come to work while the rest of the country is holidaying. Sometimes even if I have an Off day I do get called. All in the name of duty! But it is time the employees weighed the importance of the situation and decided for themselves when they should adhere to a request from bosses and when to say NO to a command when it is practically impossible. Also the work environment would be better if there was co-operation not only from colleagues but from bosses themselves
Swapna, India

As long as people do not excessively use personal email, surely there is no problem

Karen, London
Considering the fact that many of us work long hours in the office, I feel that companies can hardly complain about us sending/receiving the odd personal email. People can type very fast nowadays. It doesn't take that long to send a message. Would they prefer us to tie up the company phones? As long as people do not excessively use personal email, surely there is no problem.
Karen, London

I agree that we shouldn't spend our time at work sending out private e-mails. Our company encourages use of the new media at home by providing the employees with computers with internet access and, since then, we were informed that our e-mails and excessive use of the internet at work may be monitored. I agree with Tel that on my days off, I do not want to be called at home by my boss!
Dagmar , Germany

Caller ID is all fine and well, until your boss discovers 141!
John W, UK

The comments here show a wide variety of opinions, and these are reflected in attitudes of businesses. Some bosses are relaxed enough to allow calls to be made or emails to be sent from work. Others aren't, and some will do whatever they can to stop it. But it's a management style that I personally would not tolerate (I would resign immediately if I was subjected to these sorts of pressures, with or without another job to go to). Think of it as being like a smoke break: if you spend the whole day chain smoking on the fire-escape, you'll attract attention, but no-one begrudges people a few breaks per day. Likewise with personal emails: provided you're not moonlighting or spending your whole day on them, who can possibly have a problem with it? Sometimes you just need to take your brain out of gear for a few moments.
Simon C., UK

What really annoys me is when voicemail messages from work are left on my personal mobile phone

Joe, UK
What really annoys me is when voicemail messages from work are left on my personal mobile phone. It costs me to retrieve these messages. I don't mind being phoned when not at work, but it becomes a problem when I have to pay for the privilege.
Joe, UK

The whole subject of employers monitoring emails and phonecalls is just one more nail in the coffin of employee freedom. The biggest area of growth for employment is of course in call centres, where as well as email and internet usage being monitored, employees are also measured on their active time, signed in time, success rate, call handling time, lateness, sickness, number of calls, calls are monitored for quality...the list goes on. It gets to the point when you can't get promotion, because whenever you put a particular effort into achieving one arbitrary target, it is at the expense of another contradictory arbitrary target. Employers are so concerned with controlling their employees' minute-by-minute activities that they have forgotten entirely about the bottom line - their performance.
Tony, UK

Due to downsizing at my company I will be the only person left in my team in a few months. I have just asked for a week's holiday at Christmas, and am told I can only have it if I am contactable by phone. I have agreed, because I want the holiday but I am not answering the phone if they call. My hours of work are 9am to 5.30pm, once outside of those hours then I don't think they should contact me.

As for email, the company can read my email, I only use it for company use anyway, I have nothing to hide. I use Yahoo for personal email. If anyone is sad enough to read the emails between my friends and myself about the latest film at the cinema, or what colour lippy we're wearing on a night out, then they need to get a life.
Jo, UK

This is just another example of how the world is moving closer to Big Brother being a reality. The technology is there, all that remains is the will to use it -and some already are!
Rusty, Australia

I know for a fact that there is regular email monitoring going on

Bain, UK
I work in a call-centre. For 7.5 hours per day, I can move no further from my desk than 1.5 metres. I have a company email which is used sparingly for non-business use. I put a lot of extra work in over and above my contracted duties. It has been known for employees to be called on their days off and made to feel that they are committing a crime if they don't want to come in and work extra hours. All this for 4.60 per hour. I know for a fact that there is regular email monitoring going on. People have said that if you don't want to be phoned at home then get caller ID. What if you can't afford it? And as to just quitting; and try to find a job? It's not the financial advisors and consultants that will suffer, it is the ordinary Joe Public.
Bain, UK

We need to keep this in perspective. As an agent of my company anything I write in an email can reasonably (and legally) be construed as a corporate statement. Therefore, my company has the right to check it for content. This does not mean an army of IT people reading my every email, it means that if I am suspected of using email inappropriately my messages MAY be read. If I am away on holiday and critical information is in my inbox the company has the right to access it, and obviously may read other mails in the hunt for the information they need. If you don't like that, don't use company facilities for personal use!
Karl Peters, UK

It is good to see the UK is moving in the right direction. Unfortunately for Americans, our privacy rights are quickly being eroded down to nothing by the corporate establishment.
Keith, USA

One should always plan resources such that you shouldn't need absent employees' help

Chris Regan, England
As a manager of over 30 people in an office based around computer work I do not feel the need to read employees email. If they are able to meet deadlines and deliver a fair days work I won't begrudge them the use of email. As for phoning employees at home. I would if we needed their help. Most are happy to comply. Remember, we left the "them and us" worker to manager attitude behind years ago. If the company prospers then so do the employees and when they care about that then they help out if needed. What must be remembered however is that one should always plan resources such that you shouldn't need absent employees' help.
Chris Regan, England

The only reason I can see for the boss to "monitor" emails, is to check that work time isn't wasted. This could quite simply be done without reading the emails, by a daily report of the number of emails sent, and a breakdown of whom it is intended for. If an employee is making excessive use of the email for personal use, then they should be warned to stop.

As for phoning an employee at home, it all depends on the employee. If they make it clear that they want no contact with work on their holidays, then that should be respected. If they do not mind, then the simple "caller display" allows the employee the choice to answer or not.
Michael, Somerset, UK

I do feel that you should limit the private use of office equipment. If a company can be sued because of the content of a message sent from the office using equipment (either paper, phone, or computer) from the office, I could also understand why the boss would want your mail checked, but that IS an invasion of privacy. Of course, keeping in mind that e-mail can "bounce", or abused, you might want to make a log of purely the sender and addressee of mail, and not reading its contents. This way, abuse/misuse of equipment is lowered, without the need to invade anyone's privacy.
W.Verheul, Netherlands

There has to be certain control at the work place

Raja Chandran, Saudi Arabia
There has to be certain control at the work place. Whilst employees should have their right of privacy, one cannot ignore the fact that the employer will be the sufferer in case of any undesirable act under the privacy cover by the employee during and/or at work place.
Raja Chandran, Saudi Arabia

Opening of e-mail and being phoned at home are two entirely separate issues. Being phoned at home is not really an invasion of privacy, as one can simply check caller ID and not answer the phone, or monitor the answering machine. Opening e-mail is an invasion of privacy, as would be opening snail mail. Personally I've always preferred being called at home rather than come back to work and have to spend two days straightening out a mess that could have been prevented.
Arri London, UK/US/EU

E-mails generated at an employees workplace do not belong to them they belong to the employer so they have every right to inspect them. Companies can also be sued for the content of e-mails sent by their employees if it contains libellous or defamatory remarks about another company or individual.
Stephen, England

If you use the bosses' machinery for your e-mail, he needs to know what you are doing with it. I can remember when you had to ask permission to make private calls, and that makes perfect sense too. As for telephoning people at home, then the nature and content of calls is what matters. But at the end of the day none of these things should be the business of the law. If you don't like the way the boss treats you, just tell him.
Bob Harvey, Lincs, UK

Privacy is an outdated notion

Roland Mar, USA
Privacy is an outdated notion. There is no real privacy from any governmental organization or sufficiently large private organization that has the resources to read your entire life history from the databases that are accumulated on every consumer, they can tap any means of communication, and read your computer screen or log each keystroke as you make it. There is no legal recourse or constitutional barrier that prevents this.
Roland Mar, USA

In my last job I was working up to 120 hours per week, so it was hard to find a moment when I wasn't at work anyway, but now I have a very sane arrangement with my firm. They provide me with a mobile, and the boss can call me whenever he likes - on the understanding that if I don't want to know about work, I simply turn the phone off. It works for me!
Guy Chapman, UK

Employers should be made to respect what little time their employees have for a private life

John C, Cambridge, UK
Employers should be made to respect what little time their employees have for a private life. Is it not enough that I work 40 hours a week; forego lunch breaks; do unpaid overtime; go in on a Saturday when it's busy? Many employers believe that money justifies intrusion and that if you're being paid, then anything goes. As employees we should draw the line against this subtle drain of individual liberty.
John C, Cambridge, UK

If someone opens a letter in the US without being the addressee, than that person can be sued because of mail fraud. While this rarely happens the same rule should apply to email. However, You are paid to do a job if the job gets done fine but if not. You have work to do stop clowning around.
Bradley Hague, USA

The way round it is to get caller display on your phone, then if the boss 'phones you at home, you know who it is & can ignore it!!
Richard, UK

I'm a university student in the north of Ireland studying a degree in Interactive Multimedia Design. Each of the machines in the labs we take turotials/practicals in, is equipped with MSN Messenger, Yahoo Messenger etc.

Allowing free communication between the human beings in an organisation reaps great benefits

Christopher Tierney, N Ireland
During classes we are reasonably free to talk over the network, to chat, swap comments, help and generally communicate with each other in that environment. This has a positive, rather thatn a negative effect on the group as a whole, and helped us bond through the year a great deal.

Companies who clamp down on non-essential, personal communication are negating any positive influence that such communication can have on a body of people. Some benefits are intangible, and allowing free communication between the human beings in an organisation reaps great benefits.
Christopher Tierney, N Ireland

Why should you use the company's systems for personal use, most people have mobiles now, so why not send your e-mail that way if it's that important to you, or call - it's better to talk, surely you must get a break.

Our company will let you send a personal e-mail or make a personal call if it's important. They believe if you are happy, you will be happy in your work. However, they are strict in the use of the internet, e-mail and phone calls including mobiles in the office, but we have a cyber cafe and you can use mobiles in your break times.

They have a good helpline system for emergency calls, if the paranoid companies did the same then this debate wouldn't be needed.
Graham, UK

The important thing is getting the job done... that's what we're paid for

Dave, UK
I don't have a problem with my boss or any other colleagues calling me on my mobile while I'm on holiday, in the pub or wherever. If I really need privacy I can switch it off! Most of my colleagues and our bosses travel extensively for business and often one has no idea whether the person one wishes to call is at home or in the office.

By the same token, I have no problem with reading/writing personal e-mails and making personal calls while in the office. The important thing is getting the job done... that's what we're paid for.
Dave, UK

I work in the US, my wife is in India. If I don't see her e-mail in the morning, that day would be a dull day. Though they are simple pleasantries, it would be of very bad taste and unprofessional, if someone watched my e-mails.

I too have a handle of keeping data of other's computers. So far I had never seen any emergent need by my company to peep into others' e-mails.

Picky companies always contribute to its employees' morale decline, and thus all unwarranted activities.
Kadavul, US/India

People working in the financial sector should be aware of monitoring of their personal e-mails. There is no doubt that in some sensitive areas monitoring is just another tool to protect a company's secrets.

Since I know about it, I'm trying to use my corporate e-mail for business purposes only. There is always time for personal correspondence after work hours.
Ernest Rozloznik, New York, US

Enjoy your day off. If your boss rings - don't answer it

Al, Wales, UK
While I can see the privacy point of view, I think it is fair enough if a boss wants to read e-mails sent out from office computers. After all, you`re there to work, so e-mails will (should) be work related. I always e-mail from my mobile if it is personal.

However, I totally agree that bosses should never phone workers on their days off. Bosses like to know where you are should they need you. But providing they have enough cover for you, the business will survive your ONE day off... if it doesn`t, that is down to management. Enjoy your day off. If your boss rings - don't answer it
Al, Wales, UK

This issue should be more about the corporate culture and its failings. If employees are sending e-mails instead of working why isn't their lack of performance noticed and acted upon? Chances are it is because they are sheep doing unappreciated droll work. Any employee who feels unappreciated or unrewarded will steal from their employer... even if they would normally never do such a thing.

An employer should never ever go through their employees' e-mails, they should instead get to the root of the problem and find ways to make their employees want to work harder for them.

As for being called up at home, same thing, if you feel important and are rewarded well for your work, then it won't be an issue. People are more important than money, and people who enjoy what they do will go out of their way to reward their employer by helping them get more profit.
Stu Waddell, Edinburgh, UK

I can only think of one reason why bosses would monitor their employees e-mails and that is if anything was being written about them! It's total paranoia.
Kevin, UK

I am astonished that an employee should think that he or she has an absolute right to use business time or equipment to send e-mails to friends or use company time on personal business except in emergencies or by express permission. Whatever happened to "All communications to addressed to the company?"

Many customers latch on to a staff member and address communications personally in the hope of better or more personal service and so the company must have the right to open all communications sent to it at its business address. Equally employers have no call on staff outside paid hours and should not be surprised if an employee defers business matters to be discussed in company time.
George Theurer, UK

I'm not a slave to my boss. He doesn't have any right to disturb me during non-office hours.
Albert P'Rayan, Rwanda (India)

I am British but work in the US and the thought that the boss would even think about checking your personal e-mails would cause outrage in my office. Sending and receiving personal e-mails is a normal part of work in my organisation and it has no effect on the quality of anyone's work. Employers back home need to lighten up about these things. Nothing could be more demotivating than having someone opening and reading your mail. It would be an outrageous abuse of privacy and reduce commitment to your employer and work.
Malcolm Clark, USA

I am British but work in the US and the thought that the boss would even think about checking your personal e-mails would cause outrage in my office.

Malcolm Clark
The way round it is to get caller display on your phone, then if the boss 'phones you at home, you know who it is and can ignore it!!
Richard, UK

Employers should be made to respect what little time their employees have for a private life. Is it not enough that I work 40 hours a week, forego lunch breaks do unpaid overtime, or go in on a Saturday when it's busy? Many employers believe that money justifies intrusion and that if you're being paid, then anything goes. As employees we should draw the line against this subtle drain of individual liberty. Whatever next? Being followed to make sure we don't attend job interviews or socialise with the competition?
John C, Cambridge, UK

There's a very easy answer to this - encryption. Get yourself a PGP key, and ecrypt your personal e-mails as a matter of course. Think of it as a titanium envelope, if you like, just don't complain about e-mails you send in plain view being read. Legal or not, it is possible, ergo it will be done.
Simon Coffey, UK

It is not a question of do we need privacy but rather what limits should be placed on this very basic human right.
Robert Gufler, USA

If employers would allow a little give and take to their employees, some private use of e-mail within reason for example, then perhaps people wouldn't object so vehemently if they were called at home to answer and urgent question. The problem arises because employers seem to wish total control over the lives of their staff.
Mark , India

A lot of people are making it a big deal, being called up on a day off. When you work somewhere you have to consider all sorts of requirements of the company, and eventually all of it will all be paid off in promotions and career progression, which result in the benefit of the employee, not the company.
M Siddiqui, UK

If I even suspect they have been reading my email I will immediately resign

Dave, London, England
I work long hours and my employers do not pay me more than my contractual 40 hour week. If I even suspect they have been reading my email I will immediately resign. My view is, as long as the job is done and the e-mail is not used for obscene reasons or misuse of commercially sensitive data, what is the problem! Life first, work second.
Dave, London, England

This sounds fine in principle but as with the working hours directive, employers will request that their staff sign a waiver allowing their email and telephone conversations to be monitored. This will of course be totally voluntary!
Mark, UK

I think there is nothing wrong if bosses ring up their employees on their off day, once in a while, asking them to attend to some urgent work in office. Of course, it shouldn't happen too often. If it does, it will mean an intrusion into the employees' privacy. Also, there is no harm if employees make personal calls or send personnel e-mails from office as long as 1: the work allotted to him or her is not affected and 2: the employee is not glued to the phone or computer for personal gain all the time! Any unauthorised vetting of personal e-mails and phone calls is a crime against human rights which should be resisted at all costs.
Albert Devakaram, India

I think we need to update our concept of our workplace

Lori, USA
I don't have anything to hide in my email that I send at work but it's not a very good feeling to have some stranger sitting behind a monitor reading my personal messages. I think it is important to be able to send personal messages to retain your status as a human and not a machine who deals with figures and formal letters all day. I think we need to update our concept of our workplace. The top priority is the quality of our work, not how robotic and business like we can be.
Lori, USA

They definitely should not be monitoring email; it's the same as opening someone's letters.
Michael Hughes, UK

What happens is your boss calls your work mobile when you are at home. This can't be seen as an invasion of privacy. Trying to enforce such a law would be impossible. Businesses could be charged if a member of staff used their systems for improper use, so it is only sensible to check what the phones and e-mail systems are being used for. It's not an invasion of your family/ children's rights to go through your home phone bill to see who they have been calling - so the same principle must apply at work.
Mike B, UK

All materials you create during working hours are the property of the company

Arron, UK
How about adding some extra doubt? Under current copyright laws, any and all materials (e.g. correspondence) you create during working hours are the property of the company. That being the case, they can read your letters and email with impunity anyway. If you created them on company time, they are the copyright of the company and you have no legal rights to them. Emails that you receive would not suffer the same laws.
Arron, UK

We come to work to work, not amuse ourselves at the company's expense. How much time do you spend sending private e-mails? What's your hourly rate? If we take 10 per hour as an example and an hour a day sending personal e-mail, this equates to theft of 50 per week from your employer. You are a thief.
Dave Jones, UK

Hopefully managers will now take the importance of leisure time seriously and the obsession with time management and being seen to be staying late will be a thing of the past and frowned upon.
Ken Desavo, UK

Privacy should be respected and protected

Lazaros Filippidis, London
Privacy should be respected and protected. It simply comes down to this: if someone else can read my emails can I read theirs?
Lazaros Filippidis, London

This is just one opinion on one possible implication of the Human Rights Act. However, the idea that a court would ever sanction an absolute ban on employers contacting employees at home is ludicrous. It will obviously depend on all the circumstances. This piece of `news' appears to be an astute piece of self-promotion by the Institute of Management.
Mike Cronshaw, UK

Bosses who have to snoop on their employees are rather sad people, perhaps they should get a life!
Ian Thomas, England

Firstly, creating a Big Brother style working environment is no way to inspire trust between management and workers. Secondly, there are always going to be workers who abuse the system but surely measuring the productivity of a worker is a much better indication of employee suitability than how many personal e-mails they have sent.
AL, England

If a law or company policy is to work it must be first practical and second consistently applied. In the case of company policy, it will only be enforced if it enhances productivity rather than disaffection through alienation or fear of witch-hunts, and can work throughout a global corporate network. Anything that satisfies all these criteria will have to be libertarian. However what concerns me is that irrespective of the legal situation, a computer on my server at work where I am typing this has automatically picked up on the word 'witch-hunts' above and little-black-booked me, storing this example of poor use of the company's resources for another day. It will never be referred to directly. This is what Orwell meant by Big Brother - conditioning our communication and eventually our thoughts through fear.
David Winter, UK

I am an e-mail administrator and as part of my job I have to review bounced mails (mails that are returned to sender, or have delivery problems internal and external to the business). I am very worried that as an individual I can be sued by an employee whose mail I have read whilst trying to deliver it, and I have tried to seek clarification on this from my employer with no results. What should I do ??
Sharky, UK

I think it is totally unacceptable if an employer calls you when you are officially off work

Tel, UK
About time too! I think it is totally unacceptable if an employer calls you when you are officially off work. These days work takes up so much of your life it's important to be able to totally get away from corporate life or else you'll end up in the funny farm!
Tel, UK

Why can't we use our mobile phone or a phone box if we want privacy? I send quite a few personal e-mails from work and my employer is welcome to read the whole lot. I work many hours free overtime and get my work done. Anything remotely dodgy can be sent from home. This is common sense isn't it ?
Dave Milne, Scotland

The right for someone to read my e-mails is pretty disheartening. Correspondence is, and should be, confidential. With e-mail there is no guarantee that the person named on the e-mail actually sent it as passwords etc are only 'so secure'. A 'dodgy' e-mail with someone's name on it does not guarantee that that person wrote or sent it. Even viruses can send e-mails on behalf of an unwitting victim.
Jeff Sutton, UK

I don't think there is anything wrong with making personal phone calls or e-mails, during working hours. Within reason of course. It is part of the working culture. But I strongly disagree with bosses calling at home or during personal hours. The same applies with e-mails. Unless there is an emergency at work or they have a reason to believe that someone is abusing the e-mail system and it is affecting their productivity. Then yes, they should be allowed to investigate further. But the individual in question, should be told that their e-mails are going to be monitored etc. There are too many companies adopting a "Big Brother" style working environment which does not encourage staff morale!
Sharon Kasbia, Watford, UK

See also:

24 Aug 01 | Business
E-mail snoopers 'risk legal action'
06 Jun 01 | Business
Company crackdown on staff who surf
19 Apr 01 | Sci/Tech
Workers lose three hours to net
15 Dec 00 | Sci/Tech
Press send to censor
18 Apr 01 | Sci/Tech
Cybercops arrest online liberty
01 Jun 01 | Sci/Tech
Warning over e-mail snooping
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