Monday, September 17, 2012

NLRB continues to attack facially neutral employment policies

The NLRB continues its assault on garden-variety employment policies, issuing three decisions over the last 10 days, each of which concluded that facially neutral employment policies violated employees’ rights to engage in protected concerted activity. The cases are Flex Frac Logistics, LLC [pdf], TT&W Farm Products, Inc. [pdf], and Costco Wholesale Corp. [pdf].

To place this issue within a legal context (and for the uninitiated), the National Labor Relations Act grants all private-sector employees (union and non-union) the absolute right to engage in protected concerted activity, which includes, among other things, the right to discuss, between and among themselves, their wages, hours, benefits, and other terms and conditions of their employment. An employer cannot maintain a work rule that reasonably tends to chill employees in the exercise of that right.

The NLRB used this doctrine to invalidate the following neutral work rules:

  • A rule prohibiting employees from using the employer’s electronic systems to “defame any individual or damage any person’s reputation.”
  • A rule prohibiting employees from going AWOL during their shifts, either by walking off the job, or leaving company premises, without management permission.
  • A confidentiality policy which defines “confidential information” to include “personnel information and documents.”

Perhaps most telling is the Board’s explanation, in Costco, of its decision invalidating a rule against defamatory language:

In these circumstances, employees would reasonably conclude that the rule requires them to refrain from engaging in certain protected communications…. [T]he Respondent’s rule does not present accompanying language that would tend to restrict its application. It therefore allows employees to reasonably assume that it pertains to—among other things—certain protected concerted activities, such as communications that are critical of the Respondent’s treatment of its employees.

In her analysis of the Costco decision, Molly DiBianca hit the nail on head insofar as the dangerous course charted by the NLRB:

If there’s one thing I’d give the NLRB, it’s consistency. If a workplace rule attempts to regulate employees’ online activities, it’s a safe bet that the Board is going to be skeptical of it, at the least. Even if the rule prohibits employees from harming their employer, the Board may find it to violate the NLRA. Harm away, employee. Harm away.

Under the guise of “protected concerted activity,” the NLRB is making it next to impossible for employers to maintain any work rules that regulate what employees cannot say or do. If I apply a tortured interpretation to any work rule, I can reach some far-fetched conclusion that it could deter employees from engaging in protected concerted activity. The NLRA only is supposed to concern itself with work rules that reasonably tends to chill employees. Yet, these tortured interpretations go well beyond the realm of what is reasonable.

Employers, I wish I could whisk up a magical elixir to solve this problem. Alas, at least for the time being, we are stuck with the NLRB’s intrusiveness into the world of work rules, and the grave uncertainty that comes along for the ride.