Employment lawyer says employees have a right to see emails about them

Unfair dismissal and discrimination cases against employers will rapidly increase as employees realise they can legally access all emails written about them.

Lewis Silkin partner James Davies, who specialises in employment law, issued the warning following a high-profile case involving legal firm Charles Russell.

A secretary sued the firm for sexual and racial discrimination after a solicitor at the firm sent an email to a partner asking for her to be replaced by a "real fit busty blonde".

The secretary was paid up to £10,000 compensation in an out-of-court settlement.

Davies, who is also chairman of the Employment Lawyers Association's workplace privacy working party, said employees had a legal right to make a "data subject access request" to the data controller, that is the employer, to obtain anything relating to them contained in a structured filing system or in automated form.

They could make this request under the Data Protection Act.

Davies said there were some exceptions to the Act, such as communications with a lawyer.

Employers can charge up to £10 for each request and take up to 40 days to respond.

Davies said there was absolutely no doubt such cases would emerge at a rapid rate once employees realised their rights.

He said employers had to learn the serious nature of the comments made in emails.

"People communicate via email like they're saying something, but it's like sending a memo," he said.

"It amazes me how often people say things they shouldn't.

"And employers should make sure their employees know that as well."

DAS sales and marketing manager

Ray Kneeshaw said DAS's research showed companies received at least one employment claim each year for every 250 employees.

He said high-profile cases, such as that of Charles Russell, showed all companies were exposed to risks posed by their own employees.

"I think brokers and insurers are going to see a lot more interest in employment protection packages that offer a thorough audit of workplace practices as well as realistic cover against claims," he said.