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LABOUR RIGHTS

German court rules bosses can’t use keyboard-tracking software to spy on workers

Are bosses going too far when they use spy software to track employees' every keystroke? Apparently yes, according to a ruling by Germany's highest labour court on Thursday.

German court rules bosses can't use keyboard-tracking software to spy on workers
File photo: DPA.

The Federal Labour Court ruled on Thursday that evidence collected by a company through keystroke-tracking software could not be used to fire an employee, explaining that such surveillance violates workers’ personal rights.

The complainant had been working as a web developer at a media agency in North Rhine-Westphalia since 2011 when the company sent an email out in April 2015 explaining that employees’ complete “internet traffic” and use of the company computer systems would be logged and permanently saved. Company policy forbade private use of the computers.

The firm then installed keylogger software on company PCs to monitor keyboard strokes and regularly take screenshots.

Less than a month later, the complainant was called in to speak with his boss about what the company had discovered through the spying software. Based on their findings, they accused him of working for another company while at work, and of developing a computer game for them.

He was fired that same day.

The complainant claimed that he had indeed been programming a computer game and done other work for his father’s company, but argued that this was mostly only during his work breaks. He said the work only took about ten minutes out of his day, and that over the course of four months, he had only spent three hours total on this outside work.

So the programmer took his case to court, arguing that the evidence used against him had been collected illegally.

The Federal Labour Court agreed with this argument, stating in the ruling that the keylogger software was an unlawful way to control employees. The judges added that using such software could be legitimate if there was a concrete suspicion beforehand of a criminal offence or serious breach of work duties.

Therefore the court determined that because the evidence used to fire the employee had been obtained illicitly the programmer’s termination should now be void.

The court further said that the fact that the employee admitted to using the company computer for private purposes did not justify the circumstances of the firing.

For members

READER QUESTIONS

Reader question: Is it ever legally too hot to work from home in Germany?

Germany has regulations on working during a heatwave - but does that also apply to people who work remotely? We take a look.

Reader question: Is it ever legally too hot to work from home in Germany?

The number of people working from home shot up during the Covid pandemic, and though employees no longer have the right to work remotely by law, many have chosen to stick with more flexible arrangements and set up a home office at least part of the week.

This is great news for people who enjoy a lie-in more than a long commute, but there are some downsides. One major issue is that it’s not always clear how Germany’s strict employee protection rules actually apply in a home setting. The rules for working during a heatwave are a good example of this.

How does Germany regulate working in extreme heat? 

By law in Germany, employers are responsible for creating a safe environment for their workers. This means that they should try and keep the temperature below 26C at all times and are legally obliged to take action if the temperature goes above 30C. 

That could include putting blinds on the windows to prevent the glare of the sun, installing air conditioning systems or purchasing fans. In some cases – such as outdoor manual labour – it could also involve starting and finishing earlier in the day. 

And in really high temperatures, employers may simply decide to call the whole thing off and give their employees a ‘hitzefrei’ day – basically a heat-induced day off – to go and cool down in a lake. However, business owners are generally given free rein to decide how hot is too hot in this instance (except in the case of vulnerable workers). 

READ ALSO: Hitzefrei: Is it ever legally too hot to go to work or school in Germany?

Do the heat rules apply to ‘home office?’

Unfortunately not. In most cases in Germany, the company isn’t directly involved in setting up the workspace for an employee that works from home, aside from possibly providing a laptop or phone for remote use. 

“The occupational health and safety regulations regarding room temperature do not apply in this case,” labour law expert Meike Brecklinghaus told German business publication T3N. “This is because the employer does not have direct access to the employee’s workplace and in this respect cannot take remedial action.”

That means that on hot days, it’s the employee’s own responsibility to make sure the environment is suitable for working in. 

woman works from home in Germany

A woman works in her living room at home. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Naupold

One duty employers do have, however, is to instruct their workers about the best way to set up a healthy work environment at home, for example by giving guidance on how to regulate the temperature. 

“In the end, it is the employee’s responsibility to maintain his or her workplace in a condition in which he or she can perform his or her work without the threat of health impairments,” Brecklinghaus explained.

What can home office workers do in hot weather?

There are plenty of ways to keep flats cooler in the summer months, including purchasing your own fan, keeping curtains or blinds drawn and ventilating the rooms in the evening or early morning when the weather is cooler.

However, if heat is really becoming a problem, it’s a good idea to communicate this to your employer. This is especially important if you have a health condition that makes it more dangerous to work in hot weather. 

In some cases, you might be able to negotiate for the employer to pay for the purchase of a fan or mobile air conditioner as goodwill gesture. If possible, you could also arrange to travel to the office where the temperature should be better regulated.

Another option for early birds or night owls is to arrange more flexible working hours so you can avoid sweltering at your desk in the midday sun, although this of course depends on operational factors. 

READ ASO: Jobs in Germany: Should foreign workers join a union?

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