Is my boss allowed to read my Slack messages?

Eve Livingston, author of 'Make Bosses Pay: Why We Need Unions', breaks down the legalities that aren't often made clear.

by Eve Livingston
18 November 2021, 12:03pm

For many of us, the pandemic changed how we work completely — swapping the commute for the snooze button and the open-plan office for a corner of the bedroom. For others, it made an already difficult job even harder: stocking supermarket shelves that were emptied as quickly as they were filled, or worrying about missing a bit while cleaning a hospital floor.

But what didn’t change was the power our bosses wielded over us, from surveilling us as we worked from home to taking advantage of lockdowns to save money on wages. As furlough ends and lots of us return to the office, it’s worth knowing what bosses can and can’t get away with and how we can protect ourselves at work. 

Read on to find out whether your boss is allowed to… 

Is my boss allowed to shout at me?

It might sound unbelievable, but there’s no specific law to stop your boss from yelling at you. If it happens, though — and obviously if the behaviour escalates beyond yelling into physical aggression — it’s very likely you could accuse the perpetrator of bullying or harassment, which employees are protected against. 

Your workplace should have its own policy preventing this behaviour, which you can refer to in any complaint you make. But even if they don’t, your employer has a legal duty to protect you at work, including from bullying behaviour. And if the shouting or other aggressive behaviour is about your gender, sexuality, age or another protected characteristic, then it might be harassment, which is illegal under equality laws.

If you find yourself experiencing this, your union can help you mediate the situation or escalate it further. 

Is my boss allowed to change my breaks?

We all know what it’s like to count down the minutes to a break, only to get waylaid by another demand from above. There are some employment laws that cover breaks at work, but your boss does retain the right to say when these can be. 

In most jobs, there are a few conditions: you have to be allowed to take your break in one go in the middle of the day, and you have to be allowed to leave your desk for its duration. The law can vary slightly depending on the type of work you do and also on your age; those under 18 are generally entitled to slightly longer breaks and more time in between workdays. 

To find out the specifics, check out Acas or Citizens Advice, and also double check your contract which will specify anything you’re entitled to above the legal minimum — and whether you’ll be paid for your breaks.

Can my boss refuse my holiday request?

Whether you’re planning a flight to somewhere sunny, or you’d settle for a couple of days with a book and your living room sofa, you have a legal right to take all the holidays you’re entitled to. But your boss is also allowed to say when these can be — including refusing a request if it falls at a busy time, or if too many other people are already off. This is particularly true for workers like school teachers, who generally aren’t allowed to take holiday in term time. 

You must submit your request within the notice period stipulated by your workplace, but your employer must also give you reasonable notice that they are rejecting your request — at least as long as the holiday you want to take. If they fail to do this, you’re entitled to take the holiday and be paid for it. 

Is my boss allowed to keep my tips?

While it’s not currently illegal for hospitality workplaces to withhold tips from workers, that looks set to change under new laws being introduced. In September, the government announced they would outlaw the practice from next year.

In the meantime, it’s worth remembering that while tipping law currently is pretty vague, your employer definitely isn’t allowed to use tips to make up the minimum wage; any tips you do receive have to be additional to your basic rate of pay. 

And if you don’t like your workplace’s tipping policy or practice, there are other places to turn. Tipping practices have been the target of union campaigns in recent years, with workers at the likes of TGIs and Pizza Express taking historic action over exactly this issue — and, in both cases, winning a change in policy. 

Is my boss allowed to read my emails or Slack conversations?

Ever made a joke about your boss over Slack or arranged a job interview on the company email? The Employment Practices Code, designed to help employers comply with Data Protection regulation, might make you think twice about doing so again. Under the Code, employers are fully permitted to monitor the activities of staff provided they do so in line with data law. 

There are some conditions to this: your employer has to be transparent about what they’re doing, and they have to have good reason for doing it. Often, though, monitoring of emails and internet browsing is considered standard activity and included within workplace policies — so make sure you read yours carefully. 

When it comes to messaging systems like Slack or Teams, the above also applies — but it may come down to the settings on particular systems and who has admin rights. Again, your boss is required to tell you what they are accessing, so any relevant workplace policy should cover these messaging services. 

While these practices are unfortunately relatively standard, other forms of surveillance might cross the line into exploitation. Watch out for the introduction of things like tracking software and facial recognition, a lack of transparency, or attempts to monitor personal social media accounts.

Is my boss allowed to force me to stop working from home?

If you’ve enjoyed working in your pyjamas or saving money on the coffee run during the pandemic, you might be wondering whether you can turn your WFH arrangement into something more permanent. While many bosses might be amenable to that in the aftermath of lockdowns, they do also retain the right to make you work to the terms in your contract, including forcing you back to your desk.

All employees have a legal right to make a flexible working request, though, where you can outline the benefits to you of working from home or in slightly different hours or work patterns. As much as it might inspire an eye-roll, it’s also worth outlining the benefits to your employer of letting you work from home. Is your productivity up and your expenses bill down? Spell this out to increase your chances of a successful request.

If you’re concerned about the health and safety implications of returning to work, there is other legislation protecting you. Your employer has a duty to keep you safe, and you have a right to refuse to work in extreme circumstances where this is being jeopardised — but you should always speak to your union first to explore your options.

In short, your boss can legally get away with a worrying amount of bad behaviour. But knowing your rights can protect you, and a union can help you resist when they overstep the mark — as well as working with you to fight for work free from shouting and surveillance, and full of holidays and home-working.

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