This post was co-authored by Elizabeth Arce
It seems that every time you turn on the news some new technological innovation is being announced. For example, recent weeks have seen the unveiling of new tablet computers and smartphones. In addition, social media platforms such as Facebook and LinkedIn are constantly announcing upgrades to their websites to improve the way users communicate with one another via the internet. However, just as technology is rapidly changing, the law regulating the use of social media by employees also continues to evolve.
Since our initial blog posts and article on legal developments regarding employee social media use, the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) Office of General Counsel released a report analyzing various issues relating to social media use by employees and employer policies that attempt to regulate it. In addition, two NLRB Administrative Law Judges (“ALJs”) issued decisions that provide further guidance in these areas.
In Hispanic United of Buffalo (“HUB”), an ALJ ordered a nonprofit corporation to reinstate five employees who were fired after posting comments on Facebook criticizing workload and staffing issues. The ALJ concluded that the employees engaged in protected concerted activity because they were discussing matters that involving terms and conditions of their employment.
In Knauz BMW, an ALJ found that a car dealership’s employee handbook contained policies that restrict and limit an employee’s right to engage in concerted activity. However, the ALJ upheld the employer’s termination of an employee who posted pictures of an accident at another dealership, also owned by his employer, with unflattering comments about the salesperson involved in it on the grounds that the posting was not protected concerted activity.
These recent pronouncements from the NLRB clarify the law regarding the scope of social media use by employees and provide the following guidance to employers:
- Employees’ Social Media Postings With Each Other About The Terms and Conditions of Their Employment Are Protected. Employees engage in protected concerted activity when they use social media to communicate with one another about work related issues. Concerted activity will also be found when the employee posts comments that express the views of other employees or that attempt to initiate or induce coworkers to take group action. This can include complaints among employees about commissions, tax withholding practices and workload and staffing issues. Thus, posts that are not work related or that express individual gripes, frustrations or complaints are not protected.
- Work Related Postings That Are Sarcastic or Mocking in Tone May Be Protected. In Knauz BMW, the ALJ considered two Facebook postings by the employee. The first involved criticism of a sales event, including the inadequacy of the food being served, which employees felt could affect employee compensation. The second posting involved an accident at another dealership. The ALJ found that the posting concerning the accident was not protected concerted activity, and that the employer terminated the employee for that posting. The decision discusses what language rises to the level of disparagement necessary find otherwise protected activities unprotected. The NLRB has found statements that are mocking or sarcastic ,and terms such as “a-holes” and a “cheap son of a bitch” attributed to supervisors to be protected concerted activity when uttered in the course of otherwise protected concerted activity. Employers must meet a very high threshold to prove language is disparaging and beyond protection in the context of employees acting together to challenge their working conditions.
- Polices That Can Be Reasonably Interpreted to Restrict Employees’ Right to Engage In Concerted Activity Are Improper. In evaluating whether a social media policy improperly limits an employee’s ability to engage in protected concerted activity, employers should ask whether the rule or policy explicitly prohibits the exercise of this right or would reasonably tend to chill the employee’s exercise of it. In order words, policies that could be interpreted as discouraging an employee to discuss the terms and conditions of employment are likely improper.
- Policies That Can Be Reasonably Interpreted to Protect the Relationship Between the Employer and Its Customers Are Proper. In Knauz BMW, the ALJ determined that language in an employee handbook stating “[a] bad attitude creates a difficult working environment and prevents to [employer] from providing quality service to our customers” was proper. The ALJ reasoned that the employer had a right to demand that its employees not display a bad attitude towards customers in order to protect the employer’s relationship with its customers.
Employers who have adopted social media policies should review them with the above guidelines in mind. Finally, because the law in this area continues to rapidly change, employers should stay tuned to this blog and our Twitter (@lcwlegal and hashtag #lcwsocialmedia) for further updates.