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Lack of confidentiality in relation to an employer’s private e-mails could result in dismissal

The unauthorised reading, saving and forwarding of an employer’s private e-mails could result in the dismissal of the employee even if there are reasonable grounds to suspect that the supervisor has committed criminal offences.

In the case in question, which was brought before the Higher Labour Court in Cologne, an administrative employee, who had worked at a protestant church parish for 23 years, had access to the minister’s business computer. On this computer, she read an e-mail that was about the suspected sexual assaults on a woman who been granted asylum by the church and who lived in the parish. In the e-mail account, the employee found a chat history of exchanges between the minister and the woman concerned in the form of an attachment to a private e-mail – the employee saved this on a USB stick. She subsequently passed on the data anonymously to a woman who worked in the parish on a voluntary basis in order to protect the woman who been granted asylum by the church and to secure the evidence. Once it became known that this information had been forwarded, the church parish terminated the employment relationship without notice and the administrative employee took legal action against this – but without success.

On 2.11.2021 (case ref.: 4 Sa 290/2), the judges found that the termination without notice had been legitimate because the requisite relationship of trust had been irreversibly destroyed. The violation of personality rights that is concomitant with the unauthorised inspection and forwarding of third-party data constitutes a serious breach of the duty of due consideration under a contract of employment.

Please note: In the view of the court, the reasons for forwarding the data were insignificant because the approach taken by the woman would not have enabled her to achieve any of the objectives that were provided.

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