How private is your work chat, really?

Ministry of Justice workers who referred to a woman as a “bitch” in an online conversation she was later sent a copy of, are a reminder to take care with workplace communications, one employment lawyer says.

Academic and author Barbara Sumner made a number of Official Information Act requests as part of her PhD research into the systems around adoption. Then, in October last year, she asked for all correspondence mentioning her by name.

Among the response was a Teams conversation from 2022 complaining about her requests and referring to her as a “bitch for wanting everything”.

The disclosure may have struck fear into the heart of anyone who has vented via Teams to a colleague.

Here’s what you need to know about access to your workplace communications.

Your boss can probably read your emails and messages

Employment law specialist Alastair Espie, a partner at Duncan Cotterill, said people should assume as a starting point that anything they sent on a work device or any work communication tool such as email or internal messaging would be “fair game” for the employer to access.

“You generally assume it will be viewable by the employer who has a right to access it. The only exception is if the employer has led staff to believe that it will not look at communications and will treat them as private.”

He said sometimes employers had a policy to that effect or communicated it to staff, but it was not common.

In Microsoft Teams messages, a Ministry of Justice worker called academic Barbara Sumner a

The Privacy Act can allow outsiders to ask for information

Espie said people could also use the Privacy Act to access information that an organisation held about them, which could bring to light messages that had been intended to be private.

“It gives the right to any individual to request information about themselves. We often see that come up quite a lot in the context of employment processes, maybe a restructure or disciplinary process. Employees make requests for personal information about them and that may result in them getting access to internal emails about the process, maybe between a manager and the HR person about the process or suggesting there’s something more going on.”

He said it was for that reason that he advised employers to be careful what they put in writing when they were working through those employment processes.

“It may well be discoverable under say the Privacy Act or potentially the court process through the disclosure process.”

He said Privacy Act requests were fairly common in employment disputes. Sometimes people would seek targeted information to help them or send sweeping requests to see what turned up.

Public sector workers have extra exposure

Those in the public sector, like the workers at the ministry, have another layer to deal with because their work communications can potentially be covered by the Official Information Act.

This gives any member of the public the right to request information from government bodies, including emails and messages.

What’s on your phone could be private in some cases

If your employer pays for your phone plan, that does not automatically give them the right to information about what you are doing with it, Espie said.

But if they provide the phone, or the messaging systems being used, the same rules would apply as to any other workplace devices.


Espie said there would be exceptions where information would be withheld, such as legally privileged conversations or where information would result in the disclosure of someone else’s details.

“You might have the ability to withhold or redact information that would breach someone else’s privacy.”

People could also expect that information given for a reference or an assessment of the skills someone had for a job would be confidential.

But he said generally information would be available. “Particularly in the public sector but more generally there is a real risk that anything sent internally could be discoverable and would need to be turned over unless very specific exemptions apply.”

According to the news on Radio New Zealand

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