One in five employers snoop on staff email

Bosses sneakily spying on emails sent by employees

One in five employers may be snooping on their staff emails without informing them or gaining their consent, according to a new report published Tuesday.

The survey carried out by consultant firm KPMG's legal arm KLegal found 20 percent of employers are breaking the law by secretly monitoring emails without informing their staff.

The new Lawful Business Practices Regulations -- part of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Act -- that came into force in October, granted employers the power to eavesdrop on the private emails of their staff without their consent, providing correspondents were informed. The Data Protection Commission warned that organisations should only monitor email when there is evidence of abuse, and is due to publish a definitive code on email monitoring in the spring.

Among the 200 companies that participated in the study, 80 percent let their employees know that Internet and email monitoring is taking place. Less then half of the firms questioned allow all office-based staff to use email, with only 20 percent allowing Internet access to all employees, reflecting recent unease in the business world about the use of email and Net facilities at work.

The issue of email monitoring resurfaced this month when 70 staff were suspended in for distributing "offensive" Bart Simpson emails at the offices of Royal & Sun Alliance in Liverpool.

Disciplinary action or dismissal for Internet and email misuse was found to be common among the firms surveyed, with more than a hundred cases being reported for the downloading of pornography over the Internet. The companies involved, however, appear to make a clear distinction between pornography and offensive emails, with staff being 40 percent more likely to be dismissed for downloading pornographic images than for "offensive" images.

Fifty-five percent of employees disciplined for viewing pornography on the Internet were dismissed, compared to just 20 percent of employees who were found sending defamatory emails. "There have recently been a string of cases where the circulation of mild pornography in the office has been said to amount to the sexual harassment of women," explains Robin Bynoe, partner at city law firm Charles Russell.

Have your say instantly, and see what others have said. Click on the TalkBack button and go to the ZDNet News forum.

Let the editors know what you think in the Mailroom. And read other letters.