Secrecy of correspondence in the company: when are you allowed to open?

© Anja Roesnick /

Are you allowed to open a letter addressed directly to a colleague or supervisor when he or she is absent?? Violations of the Secrecy of correspondence can have serious consequences, because after all the violation of the secrecy of correspondence is a criminal offense in German criminal law (§ 202 of the Criminal Code). Incidentally, anyone who merely opens mail covered by the secrecy of correspondence without reading it is also liable to prosecution. But which legal requirements must you observe so that you do not make yourself liable to prosecution??

Common practice in accordance with the secrecy of correspondence

In many companies and public authorities, it is customary for all letters to be opened in the mail room, stamped with the date of receipt and then distributed to the individual employees of the company. But for which items does the secrecy of correspondence apply and which ones may really be opened??

Documents and photos are protected by the secrecy of correspondence. A written document is any declaration of thought embodied in writing. Therefore, the secrecy of correspondence applies not only to letters, but z.B. also for diaries. However, the document must be sealed by a sealed container (z.B. parcels or packages) be specially secured. Therefore z.B. Postcards, faxes or letters in unsealed envelopes are not subject to the secrecy of correspondence.

There is no problem at all if only the department is indicated on the envelope. You can open such a letter without hesitation.

Civil Engineering GmbH
Marketing department
Mark-Twain-Strasse 11
12345 Berlin

When the name comes after the company: The mention of the name sometimes serves only to facilitate internal distribution. In the case of vacation or illness, such a letter is usually forwarded directly to the substitute and may also be opened there.

Civil Engineering Ltd
Mrs. Ilka summer
Mark Twain Street 11
12345 Berlin

If the name is noted in front of the company: In the past, the general rule was that such letters must not be opened. In the meantime, however, there is a verdict of the regional court Hamm. Afterwards you may open such a letter, since it is not marked with the addition "confidential. The court ruled: The employer may open letter mail which is directly addressed to the employee but does not have the addition "confidential" or "personal" (LAG Hamm, Urt. v. 19.02.2003, 14 Sa 1972/02).

Ilka Summer
Civil engineering GmbH
Mark-Twain-Strasse 11
12345 Berlin

If the letter with "to hands" or. "z. Hd." is addressed: letters with these notations, which serves to facilitate distribution, may be z.B. be opened by the mail room or in the secretary’s office (LG Arnsberg, Urt. v. 27.10.1989, 1 O 367/89). If the letter is addressed with "care off", short "c/o", resp. "per address", short "p. Adr.", caution is required, as the note cannot be clearly assigned. To be on the safe side, you should assume that the sender has a private concern for the recipient.

Attention, confidentiality notice: The secrecy of correspondence applies here!

The situation is different if the mailing contains the address of the company, the name of an employee, or the name of the company and A confidentiality note is indicated. In this case, the mail must not be opened. If, in addition to the name of the addressee, the envelope is marked "confidential", "personal", "private", "handwritten" or "exclusive", only the addressee himself is allowed to open and read the letter. In this case, opening the letters constitutes a violation of the secrecy of correspondence (LAG Hamm, Urt. v. 19.2.2003, Az. 14 Sa 1972/02).

Ilka Summer
Tiefbau Ltd
Mark-Twain-Strasse 11
12345 Berlin

Extra tip: An exception would be if Mrs. Sommer had expressly decreed before her vacation that personal letters may also be opened. If she has not done this, the secrecy of correspondence applies and the letter must remain unopened.

These are the consequences

Violation of the secrecy of correspondence can have considerable consequences, not only in the private sphere but also in companies. If a letter is opened and read by an unauthorized person, this person first makes himself liable to prosecution. In addition, such an offense is usually accompanied by a loss of trust, which not infrequently leads to the withdrawal of certain duties or a demotion. There is also the threat of consequences under labor law: In this case, a warning must be expected in any case. Under certain circumstances, the violation of the secrecy of correspondence may even result in a transfer and in serious cases, if z.B. even internal secrets from the contents are revealed, a dismissal entail.

Company regulation on handling mail

Maintaining the secrecy of correspondence is an important concern within the company. The following aspects should be recorded in a written regulation and observed by all employees:

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