Wednesday, April 24, 2013

NLRB confirms legality of most at-will disclaimers (and employers everywhere rejoice)

The NLRB has confused me with its apparent reasonableness. Last week, the NLRB published an advice memorandum from its Office of General Counsel, in which it opined that the at-will disclaimer in an employer’s handbook did not violate employees’ Section 7 rights to engage in protected, concerted activity.

Recall that last year, the NLRB launched a preliminary offensive against handbook at-will disclaimers.

In its most recent proclamation [pdf], the Board considered the following at-will language:

Employment with the Company is at-will which means the employment relationship may be terminated with or without cause and with or without notice at any time by you or the Company. In addition, the Company may alter an employee’s position, duties, title or compensation at any time, with or without notice and with or without cause. Nothing in this Handbook or in any document or statement and nothing implied from any course of conduct shall limit the Company’s or employee’s right to terminate employment at-will. Only the Company President is authorized to modify the Company’s at-will employment policy or enter into any agreement contrary to this policy. Any such modification must be in writing and signed by the employee and the President.

The NLRB’s Office of GC concluded that the italicized language is lawful because it cannot reasonably be interpreted to restrict employees’ Section 7 rights to engage in concerted attempts to change the employment at-will status. The Office of GC contrasted this language with other language that an NLRB Administrative Law Judge has previously found unlawful: “I further agree that the at-will employment relationship cannot be amended, modified or altered in any way.” The difference, according to this memo, is the ability to modify the at-will nature of the employment in the future.

The take-aways?

  1. The NLRB will examine at-will disclaimers on a case-by-case basis, and I do not expect we will see the Board take the unreasonable position that all at-will disclaimers are unlawful.
  2. You should take a look at your current at-will language to make sure it does not foreclose the possibility of future modifications of employees’ at-will status.

I’ll leave you with one final thought. In a footnote, the Office of GC made the following comment: “The Board repeatedly has said that potentially violative phrases must be read in context and that it will not find a violation simply because a rule could conceivably be read to restrict Section 7 activity.” If that statement is true, how can the NLRB continue to justify its over-the-top policy statements on social media policies? If the NLRB can carry its reasonable position on at-will disclaimers over to social media policies, I think we might just become friends.