Birth announcements. Girl Scout cookies fundraisers. Leftovers in the company lounge. We’ve all probably received an email at work on these or similar subjects. It’s uncommon for an employee be disciplined for sending an email of such nature. But would that limit a company’s ability to act when employees circulate emails on more controversial topics?
This question was raised in a recent National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decision involving the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) affiliated with NASA. In re California Inst. of Tech. Jet Propulsion Lab, 360 NLRB 63 (Mar. 12, 2014). Based on a Homeland Security directive, NASA began requiring JPL employees to submit to federal background checks as a condition of continued employment. Twenty-eight JPL employees who believed that the background check process violated their privacy rights filed a federal class action. The case led to a U.S. Supreme Court decision holding that mandatory compliance with the background check process did not violate the right to informational privacy. See NASA v. Nelson, 131 S. Ct. 746 (2011).
Several of the plaintiffs felt that management did not adequately inform employees about the actual impact of the Supreme Court decision, so they expressed their view of the decision in emails to their colleagues. The emails were sent to several thousand JPL employees using NASA-owned computers and JPL email addresses. After allegedly receiving complaints about the emails, management issued written warnings to the authors of the emails. The warnings alleged that the authors had violated several work policies prohibiting, among other things, “spamming” co-workers; sending unauthorized, non-work-related emails; and implying JPL endorsement of a position on political, social, or legal issues. The authors filed charges with the NLRB claiming that JPL violated their right to engage in concerted protected activity under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act.
The NLRB found that JPL employees frequently circulated emails on topics like charity fundraisers and social causes. Such emails technically violated work policies, but there was no evidence of enforcement in those instances. The discipline in this case was thus suspect. Although employees have no legally protected right to use their employer’s computers to engage in protected concerted or union activity, and may be lawfully disciplined for doing so, management may not choose to enforce only work policies involving concerted protected activity.
The decision is not a prompt to start disciplining employees who offer home-baked cookies to co-workers using email. Email can be a convenient tool for building company morale. But the decision does warn against using work policies pretextually to control discussion of work matters. JPL selectively enforced its work policies to silence certain viewpoints on a work-related issue, as highlighted by the fact that JPL supervisors commented on the Supreme Court decision using their work email accounts without being subjected to discipline. Work rules commonly included in an employee manual but inconsistently enforced– like an email use policy – shouldn’t be used as a basis for silencing employees who criticize management or express dissatisfaction with work conditions.
Facebook comments about condition of company vehicles are protected under the NLRA; a Facebook rant about fake problems with the company car, not so much – Butler Medical Transport, LLC, 2013 WL 4761153 (N.L.R.B. Div. of Judges)
A recent decision by a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) gives employers insight on when they can and cannot fire an employee for their social media conduct outside of work. Particularly interesting is the fact that this decision involved two separate terminations, one of which the ALJ found illegal, and the other not.
The Norvell Termination
William Norvell worked as an emergency medical technician for an ambulance company, Butler Medical Transport (Butler). While on his personal computer at home, Norvell read a post by a co-worker (Zalewski) on her Facebook page stating that she had been fired. Zalewski attributed the firing to a patient report to management that she complained about the condition of Butler’s ambulances. Several people, including another Butler employee, posted comments inquiring into the incident, to which Zalewski responded with more posts about the patient’s report. Norvell responded to Zalewski with this comment:
“Sorry to hear that but if you want you may think about getting a lawyer and taking them to court.”
Another person posted a comment suggesting that Zalewski find a job with another ambulance company. After Zalewski asked where the company was located, Norvell posted the location and added, “You could contact the labor board too.”
Butler’s HR director obtained hard copies of these posts, and in consultation with the COO, decided to terminate Norvell. The HR director told Norvell that he was being terminated for violating Butler’s bullet point list of work rules, one of which prohibited employees from using social networking sites that could discredit Butler or damage its image.
The ALJ determined that Norvell’s Facebook posts were protected concerted activity. By advising Zalewski to see a lawyer or contact the labor board, Norvell was “making common cause” with a co-worker about a matter of mutual concern to the employees, i.e., the condition of Butler’s ambulances. Norvell’s posts had protected status even though they were accessible to people outside of the company because Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) extends to employee efforts to improve the terms and conditions of employment through channels outside of the employer-employee relationship. The ALJ did not find posts to be so disloyal, reckless, or maliciously untrue as to lose their protected status. The termination of Norvell based on his Facebook posts therefore violated Section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA.
The Rice Termination
Another Butler employee, Michael Rice, posted this comment on Facebook:
“Hey everybody!!!!! Im fuckin broke down in the same shit I was broke in last week because they don’t wantna buy new shit!!!! Cha-Chinnngggggg chinnng-at Sheetz Convenience Store,”
Butler terminated Rice for making this post. At the trial hearing before the ALJ, Butler produced maintenance records showing that Rice’s vehicle was not in disrepair when he made the post. Rice had also testified at his unemployment insurance hearing that his post referred to a private vehicle rather than a Butler ambulance. There being no evidence to the contrary, the ALJ determined that Rice’s post was not protected by Section 7 because it was maliciously untrue and made with the knowledge of its falsity. As a result, Rice’s termination was not illegal.
Legality of Work Rules
Also under scrutiny was the legality of two of Butler’s work rules, one prohibiting the “unauthorized posting or distribution of papers,” and the other requiring employees to acknowledge that they “will refrain from using social networking sights [sic] which could discredit Butler Medical Transport or damages its image.” Butler argued that the rules were not official company policy because they were stated in a bullet point list. The ALJ rejected the argument as making a distinction without a difference. Butler relied on the bullet point rules in terminating Norvell and Zalewski, and new employees were required to acknowledge receipt of the list. As such, employees could reasonably understand that they would be disciplined for failing to follow the rules on the list. The ALJ found that the rules violated Section 7 activity because they prohibited employees from communicating to others about their work conditions.
LegalTXTS Lesson: This case doesn’t break new ground, but it does contain a few important reminders for employers grappling with how far they can go in regulating the social media activity of employees.
1. A policy by any other name … is still a policy. Butler’s failure to convince the ALJ that the bullet point list was not company policy should serve as a reminder that if a company communicates a rule to its employees in writing, expects them to follow the rule, and disciplines them if they don’t, the rule is effectively a policy. It doesn’t matter that the rule appears in a document whose title doesn’t include the word “policy,” or that the wording of the rule is informal.
2. Write it right. Given how easily a supposedly informal rule could qualify as a policy, a company should take care in articulating its work rules in the form of an official written policy. Consult with counsel to make sure the wording doesn’t inadvertently violate the law.
3. Don’t go overboard. The NLRB has consistently frowned upon work rules that flat out prohibit employees from posting content on social media that damages the reputation of their employer, or worse yet, bars them completely from speaking to others about work-related issues, whether on social networking sites or other media. (For examples, see the related posts below). Reject categorical bans on employee speech in favor of rules that focus on creating or avoiding specific results.
4. Context matters. Before disciplining an employee for a social media post, understand the context in which the post was made. Is the post about a work-related issue that other employees have discussed before? Does the post call for co-workers to take action? Asking such questions helps management determine if the post is protected under the NLRA.
NLRB dishes out confusion on social media policies
NLRB sanctions employees who fire employees for online “protected concerted activity”
DirectTV’s work rules invalidated by NLRB
UPDATE: On April 30, 2013, a three-member panel of the NLRB adopted the ALJ’s decision in this case. Read the board decision here (the ALJ decision and the Dish Network social media policy that got invalidated are attached).
The NLRB recently dealt another blow to the ability of employers to prohibit employees from engaging in disparaging speech on social media. On November 14, 2012, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) of the NRLB issued a decision striking down two rules in Dish Network’s employee handbook dealing with social media use. The first rule prohibited employees from making disparaging or defamatory comments about their employer. The ALJ found that the rule could unlawfully chill employees in the exercise of their Section 7 rights to engage in concerted activity. The second rule prohibited employees from engaging in “negative electronic discussion” during company time. This rule could effectively ban union activities during breaks and other non-working hours at the workplace, the ALJ concluded.
This was not the first time Dish Network’s social media policy came under fire. On May 31, 2012, the Acting General Counsel of the NLRB issued a memo criticizing provisions of actual social media policies. Dish Network was one of the companies whose policies were scrutinized in the memo. But while the memo was merely advisory, the latest ALJ ruling is not.
Recent NLRB rulings like this one leave behind a wake of confusion for employers. Provisions that are commonplace in employee handbooks, like non-disparagement rules, are being invalidated when applied in the social media context. To add to the confusion, the NLRB can seem inconsistent. For example, the May 30 memo approved Wal-Mart’s social media policy, which includes an instruction to “refrain from using social media while on work time” or on company equipment. However, the NLRB struck down Dish Network’s practice of banning social media activity on company time. What’s an employer to do? Few definitive answers are available, but here are a few ideas to help you survive in this uncertain environment:
- Stop treating social media as a novelty. Employers who still regard social media as a frivolous activity tend to use draconian measures (like categorical bans) to regulate it. The reality is that social media has become part of everyday life, nearly as much as cellphones and texting has. The point is not to restrict social media use per se, but to manage the consequences of such use. Which leads us to . . .
- Focus on outcomes. Dish Network very well could have intended its non-disparagement work rule to protect its brand and reputation rather than prohibit employee discussion about their work conditions or compensation. However, the rule did not clearly spell out its objectives. Tell employees the outcomes you want to avoid. If what you want to prevent are discriminatory remarks that create a hostile work environment, say so. This was one of the features of the Wal-Mart policy that the NLRB’s May 30 memo approved. In a section of the policy entitled “Be Respectful,” Wal-Mart states that if an employee decides to post complaints or criticism, they should ” avoid using statements, photographs, video or audio that reasonably could be viewed as malicious, obscene, threatening or intimidating, that disparage customers, members, associates or suppliers, or that might constitute harassment or bullying.” The policy then listed examples of such conduct, such as “offensive posts meant to intentionally harm someone’s reputation or posts that could contribute to a hostile work environment on the basis of race, sex, disability,religion or any other status protected by law or company policy.”
- Stay positive. Rather than just banning certain kinds of conduct on social media, consider setting affirmative guidelines that employees should adhere to when communicating with others, whether on social media or other communication channels. For example, do you want your organization to be portrayed in a certain way? Then describe the image you would like your employees to convey to others in their communications when talking about the organization.
- It’s not over. The NLRB rulings are not the final word on how broadly employers may regulate social media activity of employees. Although ALJ decisions and even those of NLRB panels are more authoritative than guidance memos, courts have yet to weigh in.
Employers who discipline employees for their social media activity could unwittingly violate protections under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) for employees who engage in “protected concerted activity.” An employee engages in protected concerted activity when acting together with other employees, or acting alone with the authority of other employees, for the mutual aid or protection of co-workers regarding terms and conditions of employment. Since social networks by nature connect people, online gripes about work—which could be read by co-workers of the author within the same social network—could constitute protected concerted activity. Three recent National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decisions highlight this risk.
In Hispanics United of Buffalo, Inc., 359 NRLB No. 37 (Dec. 14, 2012), an employee at a domestic violence relief organization posted on Facebook about a co-worker (Cruz-Moore) who threatened to complain about the work habits of other employees to the executive director of the organization. The employee wrote: “Lydia Cruz, a coworker feels that we don’t help our clients enough . . . . I about had it! My fellow coworkers how do u feel?” Four off-duty employees responded to this post with disagreement over Cruz-Moore’s alleged criticisms. Cruz-Moore saw these posts, responded to them, and brought them to the attention of the executive director. The employee who authored the original post and the employees who responded were fired. Two NLRB members of a three-person panel found the termination to be a violation of Section 8(a)(1) of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The NLRB found the posts to be “concerted” because they had the “clear ‘mutual aid’ objective for preparing coworkers for a group defense to [Cruz-Moore’s] complaints.” The NLRB also considered the posts “protected” because they related to job performance matters.
In Pier Sixty, LLC, 2013 WL 1702462 (NLRB Div. of Judges Apr. 18, 2013), the service staff of a catering company were in the process of taking a vote on union representation when a staff member (Perez) got upset by what he perceived as harassment by his manager. During a break, Perez went to the bathroom and posted on Facebook: “Bob is such a NASTY M***** F****R don’t know how to talk to people!!!!! F**k his mother and his entire f*****g family!!!! What a LOSER!!!! Vote YES for the UNION.” Various co-workers responded to the post. The company fired Perez after learning about the post. An administrative law judge of the NLRB held that the employer violated Section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA. The judge found the post to constitute “protected activity” because it was part of an ongoing sequence of events involving employee attempts to protest and remedy what they saw as rude and demeaning treatment by their managers. The post was also “concerted” because it was activity undertaken on behalf of a union.
In Design Technology Group, LLC d/b/a Bettie Page Clothing, 359 NLRB No. 96 (Apr. 19, 2013), employees of a clothing store repeatedly but unsuccessfully attempted to persuade their employer to close the store earlier so that they wouldn’t have to walk through an unsafe neighborhood at night. The employees posted Facebook messages lamenting the denial of their request and criticizing their manager. In one message, an employee said she would bring in a book on workers’ rights to shed light on their employer’s labor law violations. Another employee saw the messages and sent them to the HR director, who in turn forwarded them to the store owner. The owner fired the employees who posted the messages, allegedly for insubordination. A NLRB administrative law judge found the terminations unlawful because the messages were a continuation of an effort to address concerns about work safety (i.e., leaving work late at night in an unsafe neighborhood) and thus constituted protected concerted activity.
LegalTXTS Lesson: What should employers learn from these decisions? To avoid violating Section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA, employers might consider the following before disciplining employees based on their social media activity:
- Check whether the employee’s post attracted or solicited a response from co-workers. The interactive nature of social networking means that communications via social media are often “concerted.”
- Calls for co-workers to take action likely constitute “protected” activity.
- Complaints about work or co-workers—even if vulgar—can be considered “protected” activity.
- Messages posted outside of the workplace or work hours can still be considered protected concerted activity.
- Be especially sensitive to messages that reference collective bargaining activity or labor requirements. Those are red flags indicating the need to exercise caution.
- Often, social media is not the initial venue for airing work-related complaints. Investigate whether the complaints voiced online were previously brought to the attention of the employer. If they were, the online messages are more likely to be found to be part of a series of protected activity.
Check out the article on Internet firings posted on HR Hero’s “Technology for HR” blog. The article talks about the firing of the Applebee’s waitress who snapped a picture of a receipt on which the customer, a pastor, wrote: “I give God 10% Why do you get 18?” and posted it on Reddit. I was happy to provide commentary for the article on Applebee’s social media policy and suggest tips for employers dealing with embarrassing Internet activity of employees like the Applebee’s incident.