Sender beware – how private are digital workplace conversations?

Following on from the recent Official Information Act request for correspondence between Ministry of Justice employees, employees may be wondering how private their online conversations with colleagues really are.

The short answer (and the safest one, from an employee perspective), is that employees should not assume communications on company platforms, systems or devices are private.

Employment agreements and workplace policies can, and often do, set expectations around the use and monitoring of workplace platforms and systems, and employees should look closely at these documents to see if this is the case.

Even if employment documents are silent, it may still be reasonable for an employer to access communications on its own platforms, systems and devices, but it depends on the circumstances. Employers certainly do not have free reign in accessing and monitoring what employees say to each other.

What, why and how the information is being accessed are all good questions to ask. There must be a lawful reason for accessing the information, and it must be done in a way that is lawful, fair and not unreasonably intrusive. Listening in on workers’ conversations via video or audio surveillance, for example, would not be lawful if the purpose of the surveillance was for general security.

Employers are also required to take reasonable steps to ensure the individual is aware the information is being collected (unless a specific exception applies!). In the example above, the employer would generally be expected to have told the workers that the surveillance was capturing conversations between colleagues. Even then, the collection of this information would still need to be necessary in terms of the reason for surveillance in the first place.

It is important to know that the Privacy Act enables an individual to request any personal information held by an agency. Personal information is a broad term that means information about an identifiable individual. As you can imagine, it potentially captures a wide raft of information, from the benign to the more secret and sensitive.

A personal information request could, for example, request correspondence held by the employer that is between specific employees and mentions, or is about, the person making the request. So, employees should also be aware that seemingly private communications may also be accessible in this way. A timely reminder to watch what you say (or write) at work! 

If you have any questions about privacy in employment, please get in touch with our Employment Team or your usual contact at Hesketh Henry.


Disclaimer:  The information contained in this article is current at the date of publishing and is of a general nature.  It should be used as a guide only and not as a substitute for obtaining legal advice.  Specific legal advice should be sought where required.

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Media contact - Kerry Browne
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