Sending private chat messages while at work is a firing offense, according to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which has ruled that a Romanian company was within its rights to fire an employee who was using Yahoo Messenger to talk to his family while at work.

The Tuesday ruling from ECHR came after Bogdan Mihai Barbulescu challenged a Romanian court ruling that his employer's decision to fire him in 2007 was valid, after it monitored his chat logs and discovered that he was messaging his fiancée and brother while at work. Barbulescu claimed that the company had violated his privacy by monitoring his private messages while at work, adding that he had sent the private messages from a separate second Messenger account. The ECHR judges dismissed his claims.

"The employer acted within its disciplinary powers since, as the domestic courts found, it had accessed the Yahoo Messenger account on the assumption that the information in question had been related to professional activities and that such access had therefore been legitimate."

Barbulescu had been instructed to create a Yahoo Messenger account by his employer to answer client queries and after monitoring his activity for several days, the company said Barbulescu's use of the chat application for sending personal messages violated the company's policy which stated that its systems could only be used for professional purposes. 

The ruling by the ECHR means that all countries which ratified the European Convention on Human Rights are bound to follow the decision. "This judgment underlines the importance of having appropriate and lawful employee monitoring policies in place and making sure both that they are communicated to employees and that they are adhered to by the employer,” Sally Annereau, a data protection analyst at law firm Taylor Wessing, told International Business Times.

One of eight ECHR judges sitting in this case disagreed with the ruling, saying that a blanket ban on personal internet use was unacceptable and adding that in the future, all employers should make employees aware of what the company policy is in relation to personal internet use:  "All employees should be notified personally of the said policy and consent to it explicitly," he wrote. 

The judges in this case claimed that as the computer Barbulescu was using to send the messages was the property of his employer they were within their rights to monitor his chat logs — however, in an era when smartphones are so prevalent, it is unclear how the ruling would be viewed had the messages been sent from a device owned by the employee.