Sticks 'n Stones May Break Your Bones, But Workers Can Defame You

Posted by Molly DiBiancaOn September 12, 2012In: Social Media in the Workplace, Union and Labor Issues

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The NLRB continues to whittle away the ability of employers to manage the operations of their businesses. In the past two years, the NLRB and its Acting General Counsel have issued a slew of opinions and advisory memoranda in which they've proclaimed various workplace rules to be in violation of the NLRA. Many of the rules they've found to be unlawful have been standard issue in workplaces around the country for many years. And many employers (and employers' lawyers) believe that the NLRB's interpretation of the Act is alarmingly overbroad.

The latest decision that threatens the workplace as we know it was issued last week, on September 7. In Costco Wholesale Corporation, Case 3A-CA-012421, 358 NLRB No. 106, Chairman Pearce and Members Griffin and Block overturned the ruling of an Administrative Law Judge. There were several workplace rules at issue in the case but the one of particular interest to me read as follows:

[S]tatements posted electronically . . . that damage the Company, defame any individual or damage any person's reputation, or violate the policies outlined in the Costco Employee Agreement may be subject to discipline, up to and including termination of employment.

When I read that prohibition, I am inclined to give it a pretty high grade. What I like most about the provision is that it requires actual harm to occur. It does not prohibit employees from engaging in social-media in a way that may cause harm or that may damage the reputation of the company or others. It requires that some harm actually occur before a violation will be found.

Alas, the NLRB and I apparently use a different grading scale because the Board found that the policy was, indeed, overly broad in violation of the Act. The Board's analysis, as it always does, turns on whether the policy would reasonably tend to chill employees in the exercise of their Section 7 rights.

The Board found that this policy would chill such speech because its "broad prohibition" clearly encompasses concerted communications protesting the company's treatment of its employees. In other words, the NLRB concluded that employees would likely construe the rule as prohibiting them from speaking negatively about the Company.

So how could the rule be fixed? Well, the Board implied that there may be two ways to improve it, if not correct it entirely. First, the Board indicated yet again that disclaimer language may have saved the policy. If there had been some language explaining that the rule did not apply to protected activities, that may have helped. (No guarantee, of course, nor was there any sample language provided).

Second, the Board indicated that the rule should have been limited to acts that fall outside the protections of the NLRA, such as conduct that is "malicious, abusive, or unlawful." I could almost laugh out loud at this suggestion. Almost.

In my opinion, a policy should never hinge on intent. Who's to say what the "real" reason is when an employee posts a negative comment about his employer? Maybe it's malice. Maybe it's stupidity. Maybe he's having a really bad day and just wants to take it out on somebody or something other than himself. Who knows? Not me and, I suggest, not his employer. Let's not play Backseat Psychic, shall we? Leave the intent-based restrictions to my colleagues who practice criminal law.

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.

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