The U.K. Information Commissioner set down guidelines this week for workplace monitoring, such as the interception of worker's e-mail and telephone messages, recommending that employees must be clearly informed of the purpose and nature of the surveillance.

The guidelines were released as recommendations that employers are expected to follow. Those who fail to comply could find themselves in court if they infringe on workers' privacy rights.

The guidelines are not laws, however, and companies can get away with following different procedures, Assistant Commissioner David Smith said.

However, Smith said that he believes that companies will take the recommendations seriously, adding that the employers his office has talked with, consider privacy as an important issue.

"We've had a lot of inquiries on this issue because it has a real impact on individuals," Smith said.

While the codes did not completely rule out covert employee surveillance, they said that there are few circumstances in which secretive monitoring is justified.

"Monitoring is a recognized component of the employee relationship," the guidelines state, however, "monitoring may, to varying degrees, have an adverse impact on workers."

Smith said that although it remains to be seen what happens with workplace privacy issues in the courts, he expects that the new codes will play a part in shaping decisions.

The full guidelines can be found online on the U.K. Information Commissioner site at http://www.dataprotection.gov.uk/dpr/dpdoc.nsf