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Can My Employer Delete My Personal Documents?

By: Kevin Watson MSc - Updated: 6 Oct 2012 | comments*Discuss
 
Laptop Usage Policy Employer Employee

Q.

I am working as a software developer for a financial company. I am provided with a company laptop. I am saving personal data under "My Documents", which is supposed to be a private folder. I am storing music in there as well under "My Music".

I received an email from our admin team saying they had be told to delete this music, she gave me some time to save it.

Anyway, they looked into the "My Documents" folder without asking me. Does my employer have the right to just look into my private files and documents, and even delete them?

(D.M, 10 June 2009)

A.

This question is highly relevant because of the widespread use of company-furnished laptops by staff. Unfortunately, though, it’s hard to give a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer because there are two issues to consider.

Employee rights

Employees can have the right to use a laptop for private purposes. This right is clear-cut if:
  • the employer has a laptop or facilities usage policy, and
  • the policy states that staff can use a laptop or similar facility for personal data.

The first task is therefore to obtain and read the employer’s usage policy. If the policy is unclear, which may happen, the employee must ask for clarification.

If the employer doesn’t have a usage policy, it’s still possible to pursue the matter. The employee should ask for a written statement about laptop usage. This may not turn out in the employee’s favour but at least the policy will be there to consult.

Whatever the policy says, though, it’s important to bear in mind that the laptop belongs to the employer. Most employers will take a reasonable view about private use. They tend not to be bothered as long as such use doesn’t clash with work.

Some are not so obliging. If they forbid private use of a laptop, there’s little staff can do. In these situations, staff may also find it difficult to complain if employers look at private data on what is, after all, their property.

Malpractice

The second issue is malpractice. An employer may make it clear in a usage policy that staff can use a company laptop to store personal data. If so, the employer should not view and delete the employee’s private data.

If the employer believes the employee is committing a crime or engaging in some form of malpractice, however, the situation changes. The employer can then look at the private data.

The evidence from employment tribunals confirms this. Generally speaking, an employer should not infringe an employee’s rights to privacy; but if an employer violates this right because of a suspected crime or serious incident, and the evidence proves the employer’s concerns, the tribunal will overlook the infringement.

This is not to say that the person asking this question is committing a crime. The purpose of raising the matter here is for clarity. If the questioner takes the matter further, for instance, he or she must be prepared for any arguments the employer may use.

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