“Can I forward copies of my work e-mails to my personal account?”
This is one of the more frequent questions we are asked by clients involved in disputes with their employers and our advice to them in response is always the same, an emphatic “no”.
It is understandable an employee would want copies of any e-mails they consider may be relevant to any grievances, disciplinary processes and proceedings to which they may be a party; after all, those e-mails could be crucial in determining the outcome and be the difference between an employee securing a favourable result or not.
However, no matter how relevant those e-mails might be and how useful they may be in supporting an employee’s position, the one thing that is most often overlooked by employees in this situation is that those e-mails belong to the employer and forwarding them to third parties (outside the usual course of business) without consent could lead to potentially serious consequences.
For example, forwarding e-mails which contain information about third parties (clients, customers, other colleagues within the business etc.) could amount to a Data Protection breach which could not only have serious implications for the business if the Information Commissioner’s Officer were to become involved, but would very likely be a breach of the company’s GDPR or Data Protection policies for which an employee could be subject to disciplinary proceedings.
Depending on the subject nature of the e-mails, the number of e-mails that have been forwarded and to whom those have been sent (for example whether that is to an employee’s personal e-mail or the personal e-mail of the employee’s partner, family member, friend etc.), it may amount to gross misconduct providing the employer with the opportunity to summarily dismiss the employee without notice.
An employee may also find themselves in breach of the confidentiality obligations contained in their contract which not only leaves them susceptible to a disciplinary, but also to potential legal proceedings if the breach causes financial loss to the company.
It is also worth bearing in mind that if the relationship between an employee and employer has broken down to the extent the employer is exploring ways to remove the employee from the business, forwarding copies of company e-mails to an external account without authorisation could provide the company with a legitimate excuse to terminate the employee’s employment on grounds of misconduct. This could be particularly harmful where the company has no other legitimate grounds to bring the employee’s employment to an end (and where that employee has unfair dismissal rights) or to any attempts at negotiating an exit.
In short, the benefits of forwarding work e-mails to a personal e-mail account will almost always be outweighed by the risks and consequences associated with the same. Of course, every situation is unique and there may be very limited narrow circumstances in which the benefits may outweigh the consequences but that is very much the exception rather than the rule.
Instead, if an employee finds themselves in this situation it is always worth taking advice on the possible alternative routes to obtaining copies of the relevant documents (for example the use of Data Subject Access Requests and requests for specific disclosure where proceedings have already been commenced.)
Taking advice on these options at an early stage may ultimately end up saving time, costs and potentially an employee’s job, in the long run.
If you would like to discuss any aspects related to the use of company e-mails further, our Employment Department (firstname.lastname@example.org) would be delighted to assist.