What's it like to have your emails investigated?

Finger pressed down on computer Image copyright iStock

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that it's not illegal for employers to read workers' private messages sent via webmail accounts and chat software during working hours. But what's it like when this happens? One City worker gives his story.

I got called into a meeting one day with HR and my manager and they told me I'd been accused of making inappropriate comments about a colleague who had cancer. I told them that I didn't even know the guy had cancer. I genuinely had no idea that he had.

It was put to me that I'd used the phrase "cancer smancer" at some stage. I thought over and over again about what the cause of the allegations might be. Eventually I replied with a scenario in which I might have said it. I said it could have been when I'd been smoking outside a bar on a work night out. Perhaps I'd been talking about the risk of smoking to my own health and joked about it by using that phrase.

More on this story

Employers can read workers' private messages sent via chat software and webmail accounts during working hours, judges have ruled.

Private messages at work can be read by European employers (14 January)

How could I have made jokes about my colleague's cancer if I didn't even know about it, I asked. The manager and the HR people looked at each other and the meeting was over pretty soon after that.

The colleague who had been diagnosed with cancer might have overheard. He must have picked up the words completely out of context. I told the HR people about this.

Then there was another meeting. HR said I'd been overheard in the hallway at work saying that someone "must have no fluid left in their balls". I guessed from that that the colleague making the original complaint must have had testicular cancer. I didn't know that, even after they'd told me he had cancer.

I told HR I didn't recall having said it, but maybe we'd been having a jokey conversation about a friend who was getting a lot of sex at the time. It certainly wasn't a joke about testicular cancer.

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The meetings kept happening over a period of several months. Eventually HR told me they'd gone through all my emails and instant messages, at least those on the work-based accounts. They said they'd found one of my messages saying: "That was a clever comment. You can't get fired for that."

They asked me what that "clever comment" had been. Did I remember why I'd sent that message to a colleague? I couldn't remember. But after a while it came back to me. The comment I'd been referring to had been made by a senior manager who had passed by our desks one day - it was a comment that I'd found inappropriate.

He'd seen the screensaver on the computer of a colleague who was away from his desk. It showed the colleague and his wife. The manager had said what a "brave man" this colleague was. The wife was a large woman, so it was the manager's way of insulting her without explicitly doing so.

So, when that had been cleared up, I asked HR if they were going to investigate the senior manager. They essentially had to back down and, as far as I know, he wasn't investigated.

That was the only thing they found on my instant messaging. By now they'd been looking into me for about three months. HR went away for another month or so, after which they told me they hadn't found anything and they were stopping the investigation. But they told me to use the messaging system in a more "work-based" manner. I asked them how they thought I'd done otherwise. They didn't give any more details.

Image copyright iStock

A few weeks later, my manager spoke to me and accused me of sending a colleague a message on the internal system about the size of penises in Pittsburgh. I had no idea what he was talking about. So I asked him to show me what he meant.

What it was was an article from a news website. It described how protesters in St Petersburg had painted a giant penis on a bridge, so that when it was raised it could be seen over a wide area. It was just a jokey news story shared with a colleague.

It was getting ridiculous. HR were totally desperate to pin something on me, so they could justify the size of their investigation into my activities. At another meeting I was given an informal verbal warning about my activities. But they gave me a pay rise at the same time. It was really strange.

A few months later I ended up leaving the company. I couldn't work there anymore under those circumstances. Just before I left I had another meeting with my manager, who told me the company had been really worried about a potential multimillion-pound lawsuit from the colleague who'd been diagnosed with cancer and that's why the HR department had gone after me so hard.

I threatened to get lawyers involved at one point, which seemed to make them back down a bit, but it all seemed so unnecessary,

I always knew that they wouldn't find anything because I hadn't done anything wrong. I always assumed they'd monitored our work email and instant messaging accounts during my four or five years at the company, but they were using them to go after me for some wrongdoing that hadn't happened. They made my life very difficult for a long time.

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