In the past 60 days, the NLRB has issued two decisions further striking down various employer policies and practices as violating Section 7 of the NLRA. In the first case, Banner Health Systems (July 30, 2012), the NLRB held that an employer’s practice of urging employees not to discuss an ongoing investigation violated the NLRA. In the second case, Costco Wholesale Corporation (September 7, 2012), the NLRB struck down various Costco policies regulating employees’ electronic posting and discussion of certain information.
In Banner Health, the employer’s human resource department, like most, had a practice of urging complainants and witnesses interviewed as part of an investigation not to discuss the matter with coworkers during the pendency of the investigation. The purpose of the practice obviously was to protect the integrity of the investigation. The NLRB held that this generalized concern with protecting the integrity of investigations was insufficient to justify the infringement on employees’ Section 7 right to engage in concerted activity for mutual aid and protection (such as discussing their wages and terms and conditions of employment). The NLRB did not say that requiring confidentiality during an investigation was always a violation of Section 7 rights, but said that blanket confidentiality rules were a violation. According to the NLRB, the employer must determine, in the particular circumstances of any given investigation, whether confidentiality should be required because witnesses need protection, evidence is in danger of being destroyed, testimony is in danger of being fabricated, or there is a need to prevent a cover up. Given that one or more of these concerns are present in most investigations, employers and HR should not be afraid to continue urging confidentiality during investigations as appropriate. Just document the reason for the confidentiality in the given investigation.
In Costco, the NLRB analyzed whether various written work rules limiting discussion and electronic posting of information violated employees’ Section 7 rights. The NLRB struck down the following Costco rules:
• “unauthorized posting, distribution, removal or alteration of any material on Company property” is prohibited;
• Employees are prohibited from discussing “private matters of members and other employees . . . includ[ing] topics such as, but not limited to, sick calls, leaves of absence, FMLA call-outs, ADA accommodations, workers’ compensation injuries, personal health information, etc.;”
• “sensitive information such as membership, payroll, confidential financial, credit card numbers, social security number or employee personal health information may not be shared, transmitted, or stored for personal or public use without prior management approval;”
• Employees are prohibited from sharing “confidential” information such as employees’ names, addresses, telephone numbers and email addresses; and
• Employees are prohibited from “electronically posting [including online message boards and discussion groups] statements that “damage the company, defame any individual or damage any person’s reputation.”
The NLRB held that these broadly phrased prohibitions violated employees’ Section 7 rights because they could “reasonably be interpreted” as prohibiting employees from discussing their wages and other terms and conditions of employment with other employees and third parties, including union representatives. The NLRB held that there was nothing in the rules that made clear that the rules were not intended to interfere with employees’ Section 7 rights.
Costco didn’t lose entirely, in case you were wondering. The NLRB surprisingly approved one of Costco’s rules—a rule requiring employees to use “appropriate business decorum” in communicating with others.
Based on the reasoning of the Costco decision and the NLRB’s recent advice memoranda concerning social media policies, employers continue to be advised to review and revise their work rules and policies to try to minimize NLRB-related risk. Employers should use limiting language in their policies to make clear that the restrictions are not intended to interfere with or chill employees’ Section 7 rights. Beware, however, the NLRB’s AGC has opined that a boilerplate disclaimer at the end of a broadly worded policy does not suffice.
The NLRB decisions are available in full on the NLRB’s website here.