Monday, April 6, 2015

NLRB eviscerates the line between insubordination and protected concerted activity

Employers struggle with how to handle employees to take to social media to vent about work. And, they do so for good reason. For one, employers risk creating a viral nightmare out of a fleeting vent. Also, the NLRB continues to take a long, hard look at Facebook firings.

Case in point: Pier Sixty, LLC [pdf].

A Pier Sixty employee took to his personal Facebook page to vent about how his manager had been talking to co-workers. This employee, however, used what anyone would consider less-than-professional language to express his frustration. 
Bob is such a NASTY MOTHER FUCKER don’t know how to talk to people!!!!!! Fuck his mother and his entire fucking family!!!! What a LOSER!!!! 
Unfortunately for this employer: 1) the company was facing a union election two days later; 2) this employee supported the union; and 3) he ended his post, “Vote YES for the UNION!!!!!!!”

Not so surprisingly, when the employer learned of the Facebook post, it fired the employee. Also not so surprisingly, the foul-mouthed Facebooker filed an unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB.

The NLRB sided with the employee:
[W]hile distasteful, the Respondent tolerated the widespread use of profanity in the workplace, including the words “fuck” and “motherfucker.” Considered in this setting, Perez’ use of those words in his Facebook post would not cause him to lose the protection of the Act.
Even if the air of this workplace is full with tolerated obscenities, should an employer ever have to tolerate this type of language specifically directed at a member of management and his family? More to the point, as the lone dissenter argued:
The language Perez chose to post was not merely obscenity used as curse words or name-calling. The phrases NASTY MOTHER F—er and F—ck his mother and his entire f—ing family are qualitatively different from the use of obscenity that the Respondent appears to have tolerated in this workplace. Perez’ statements were both epithets directed at McSweeney and a slur against his family that also constituted a vicious attack on them.
What are the takeaways for employers?
  1. Insubordination is insubordination, period. An employer should not have to put up with this type of harsh language specifically directed at a member of management. Nevertheless, this case illustrates the regulatory environment under which employers currently operate, and the scrutiny that even the safest of terminations might receive.
  2. If you want to make sure that you have the freedom to discipline any employee for the use of obscenities, it is safest to apply the same standard to all employees. Nevertheless, I firmly believe that the Board missed the mark in this case. There exists a real and meaningful distinction between the occasional conversational f-bomb and “Fuck his mother and his entire fucking family!!!!“

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