Employee emails and the data protection implications of access

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A GDPR & Data Protection Advisory Note.

Published: 24/02/2020 Last Updated 24/02/2020

Warning! Advanced learning – read with tea or coffee and biscuit*

  • Take precautionary measures to reduce the need for accessing employee emails and personal mailboxes for business continuity purposes.
  • Adopt a policy on accessing the mailboxes of absent staff if there is a business need.


Organisations often want to access the employee emails of absent or former employees’ mailboxes for business continuity reasons, e.g. when an employee is on long-term leave, has left, or is deceased.

If any private use of that mailbox has been authorised, such access may be an interference with their right to privacy and will therefore need to be justified.

Reducing the need to access personal mailboxes

In order to minimise the need to access personal mailboxes of employees, ensure that relevant emails are also accessible elsewhere, for example by:

  • Instructing employees to save all relevant emails in electronic case files such as in document or case management systems (or to archive correspondence in paper files);
  • Introducing functional mailboxes for specific units/services/sectors that are accessible to all relevant employees – recipients could then be asked to copy all business-related correspondence to these mailboxes;
  • Instructing employees who are leaving to provide complete handover notes.

However, if access is still necessary, it should be done in accordance with a policy.

Have a policy about accessing personal mailboxes

The process for accessing staff mailboxes should be defined in a policy (which can also cover access to paper files) that employees must be informed about both:

  • When they join the organisation, (perhaps via an email use policy) and
  • In specific cases when the organisation wants to access their email accounts.

This policy should provide employees with a detailed explanation about access, outlining the necessity, urgency, nature and scope of the information sought. As part of the information to be provided, employees also have to be informed about their right to object (unless this requires a disproportionate effort).

An organisation’s policy must establish clear rules to allow it to access emails in such cases. Access should be incremental, for example, by searching for specific keywords and subject lines before accessing the content of messages, informing the data protection officer and keeping records to be able to verify the lawfulness of such access.

*We’re not sure if the above is interesting, but it’s definitely not legal advice.

If your organisation is looking to comply with the requirements of the GDPR then take a look at how our CSaaS and DPaaS solutions can help.