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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

How to apply new email soliciation rules

Late last year, the NLRB issued its decision in Register-Guard, which determined that an employer can lawfully prohibit union-related use of company email systems if the employer has a consistently enforced policy prohibiting "non-job-related solicitations." If it was not clear before, after Register-Guard it is clear that an employer's email system is company property and "employees have no statutory right to use [the company's] e-mail system for Section 7 purposes." (For my prior discussion of this case, see NLRB rewrites employee solicitation rules).

To date, the NLRB has decided 5 cases under the Register-Guard standard. To help employers understand the position the NLRB will take on limitations placed on corporate email systems and other employee communications, it has summarized those 5 cases in a published memorandum, which I will further summarize for everyone.

Case #1: The employer had historically allowed the union to use the company's email system to conduct union business and to communicate with the employer about labor relation matters at the facility. Recently, the employer sent a letter to the union stating that it had knowledge that the union was inappropriately using the company's e-mail system by sending broadly distributed emails to company managers outside the facility. The letter cautioned that further similar activity could result in immediate suspension of the union's email account. The NLRB found the rule to be lawful because it concerned how the union was permitted to use the employer's email system and did not otherwise prohibit the union from engaging in protected communications outside the plant or to broad groups of managers.

Case #2: Both before and after the union's organizing campaign began, the employer maintained a no solicitation rule which, on its face, prohibited solicitation for any purpose during working time and in work areas. The employer, however, was inconsistent with its enforcement of the policy. For example, the employer warned and/or disciplined employees engaged in union solicitation activity, yet permitted non-union-related solicitations such as school fund raisers and Avon sales. Because the employer permitted direct solicitations for non-union/non-work purposes, its prohibition of union-related solicitations was discriminatory.

Case #3: The employer had a handbook provision which stated that its email system is intended for reasonable and responsible business purposes and is not intended for personal use, and that employees may not solicit during working time for any purpose. After sending an email communication about a union meeting, an employee received a written warning for using the email system for solicitation purposes in violation of handbook provision. Other employees, however, frequently sent non-work related emails while at work and during working times (such as chain letters, jokes, party invitations, and solicitations for candy sales) and were not disciplined. The NLRB concluded that the employee was unlawfully singled out because of the union-related content of his email. Case #4: An employee, who was dissatisfied with working conditions, circulated an email petition to try to drum up support to take the concerns to management. When the Board of Directors learned who was responsible for the petition, it terminated him for insubordination for participating in the "anonymous email scheme" and inappropriately using the employer's computers in violation of its policy. The NLRB concluded that the employer unlawfully discharged the employee for engaging in protected concerted activities when seeking the support to address working conditions. An employer may not rely on an employee's failure to adhere to a rule that prohibits protected activity as a basis for discipline. Further, because the employer's email policy allowed reasonable personal use of the computer and the employer permitted employees' extensive use of the Internet, email and other company equipment for their personal purposes, it disparately enforced its email policy against protected concerted activity.

Case #5: An employee union organizer led a delegation of union supporters into one of the employer's stores. The group handed the store manager a letter announcing of the formation of a union, together with a written list of demands regarding wages and working conditions. Simultaneously, other union members and supporters distributed union leaflets outside of the entrance. At the time of this event, the employer maintained two bulletin boards, one for official employer announcements and another for employee personal or general non-work-related matters. The employer had no written policy concerning the use of these bulletin boards. The next day, the main union supporter posted on the employee bulletin board the list of demands that had been given to the store manager, along with the union leaflet. The letter and leaflet were removed, yet other personal announcements remained. Thereafter, he noticed that all items that had been previously posted on the general employee bulletin board had been removed and employer materials were now posted there. The store manager informed the union organizer that employees were no longer allowed to post anything on the employee bulletin board. The NLRB concluded that the employer had an anti-union motive and that its actions were directly in response to the union activity. There was no disparate enforcement of a written company-wide policy, but an unwritten policy that was abruptly changed in response to union activities.

Conclusion: If an employer permits a union representing its employees to use the employer's email system, it can place reasonable limits on that use. If, however, an otherwise valid rule is promulgated or enforced for anti-union reasons, Register-Guard will not protect the employer's actions. The key is consistency. A neutral policy should be in place before any union activity or communication occurs. That reasonable policy should then be uniformly and consistently applied and enforced to avoid running afoul of the NLRA's protections for union and other concerted activities.

[Hat-tip: Manpower Employment Blawg]