On January 4, 2021, the National Labor Relations Board issued an opinion regarding union allegations that several provisions of a company’s employee handbook violated the National Labor Relations Act.[1]

As a reminder, the NLRA:

  • Guarantees employees the right to engage in “concerted activities” for collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection, which are collectively referred to as “protected activities” and
  • Makes it unlawful for employers to restrain or coerce employees in exercising their rights. This includes maintaining work rules that reasonably tend to inhibit employees from exercising their rights.

A summary of the policies in question and the Board’s findings that followed are provided below:

1. Rule Prohibiting Employees from Conducting Personal Business on Company Time or Company Property

FindingThis policy restricts employees’ rights to engage in protected activities under the NLRA because the phrase “personal business” is broad enough to include protected union activities. The policy’s fatal flaw was its failure to acknowledge that employees are entitled under the law to engage in such activities during breaks and other non-working times, even if done on company property.

2. Rule Prohibiting “Inappropriate Communications”

Finding Reasonable employees would understand “inappropriate communications” to understand the rule to infringe on their rights under the NLRA because of the extensive guidelines that follow in the policy (such as not disclosing confidential patient information) give context to the lawful and legitimate meaning of the phrase.

3. Rule Prohibiting Disclosure of Confidential Information Regarding the Company or Coworkers

Finding When read as a whole, the rule would not reasonably be understood to prohibit the sharing of information about the terms and conditions of employment (protected activities). Examples of confidential information provided in the policy, such as trade secrets, imply that the policy is limited to the employer’s proprietary business information and does not interfere with employees’ rights under the NLRA.

4. Rule Prohibiting Using the Company’s Name to Endorse, Promote, Denigrate, or Otherwise Comment on Any Product, Opinion, Cause, or Person

Finding An objective and reasonable employee would understand that this rule is aimed to prevent employees from speaking on behalf of the company rather than about the company. Employers generally have the right to limit those who can speak for it without violating the NLRA.

5. Rule Prohibiting Posting Photos of Coworkers or Company Equipment Online Without Consent

Finding A rule that essentially requires employees to be respectful of the privacy and dignity of coworkers is not unlawful. Further, the prohibition on posting pictures of company-owned equipment strongly implies that the purpose of the policy is to protect the company’s legitimate privacy issues.

6. Rule Prohibiting Sharing of Employee Compensation Information

Finding This rule is only intended to apply when a third party telephones the company seeking information about employees’ compensation and does not restrict employees from discussing their compensation amongst themselves and with a union.

7. Rule Prohibiting the Use of Social Media to Disparage Company, Patients, Employees, etc.

Finding Rules that prohibit employees from making disparaging statements about the employer to a third party are generally lawful. According to the NLRB, fundamental bonds and loyalties cannot adequately be protected if the employer is prohibited from having a policy against disloyalty and disparagement that is neutral on its face.

Final Thoughts

Though this opinion from the NLRB is viewed as a significant win for employers across the US, it is important always to remember one thing – the devil is still in the details. The Board carefully described each policy’s context and incorporated examples in the policy showing what would be considered company violations. As such, employers would be wise to evaluate their policies against this ruling on a deeper level past the blanket statements heading each policy to ensure that their company policies are truly in line with the NLRA as interpreted and enforced by the NLRB.

[1] Medic Ambulance Service, Inc. and United Emergency Medical Services Workers, Local 4911, AFSCME, ALF-CIO. Case 20-CA-193784.

Katie L Robinson, ESS Corporate Counsel

Disclaimer: The foregoing information is not offered as legal advice but is instead offered for informational purposes. Global HR Research is not a law firm and does not offer legal advice and this communication does not form an attorney-client relationship. This information is not intended as a substitute for the legal advice of a lawyer knowledgeable of the user’s individual circumstances or to provide legal advice. Global HR Research makes no assurances regarding the accuracy, completeness, currency, or utility of the following information. Legislative, regulatory and case law developments regularly impact on general research and this area of law is subject to change frequently.

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