by Sabrina E. Dunlap, Stephen D. Erf and Heather Egan Sussman
In April 2011, we issued a blog post outlining some of the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) decisions regarding employee use of social media (the post can be accessed here). In an effort to provide guidance on the issue, the Acting General Counsel of the NLRB (General Counsel) recently issued a report (found here) addressing cases from the past year arising in the context of social media use. The report uses 14 cases to illustrate how the General Counsel’s office determines that use of social media qualifies as protected concerted activity, and when the mere contents of an employer’s social media policy can give rise to liability under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), even when an employer’s employees are not represented by a union.
While the distinction between protected and unprotected activity on social media sites is not always obvious, several trends emerge from the illustrative cases, providing guidance on when the General Counsel’s office (the prosecution arm of the NLRB) will conclude that activity is protected. For example, in cases where the employee discussed his or her social media posts with other employees, or had discussions with coworkers and subsequently drafted a post based on such discussions, the General Counsel’s office tended to deem this “protected concerted activity” such that an employee could not be disciplined for the conduct. By contrast, when employees did not discuss posts with coworkers, or where an employee’s posts were merely “individual gripes” containing no language suggesting an attempt to engage other employees into group action, the General Counsel’s office generally concluded there was not protected activity, and the resulting disciplinary action did not violate the law. One case involving inappropriate and offensive “tweets” by an employee about his employer did not involve protected concerted activity because the tweets did not relate to the terms and conditions of employment, and again, did not seek to involve other coworkers in issues related to employment.
As for the content of workplace social media policies, the key takeaway from the report is that employers should avoid using overbroad terms that could be construed to prohibit protected concerted activity. For example, the General Counsel’s office has taken issue with policies barring comments compromising the “privacy or confidentiality” of a coworker or that could “damage the reputation” of the employer, or that could “put your job in jeopardy,” because the terms were not defined in the policies. As a result, the General Counsel’s office concluded that the undefined terms could “reasonably be interpreted as prohibiting protected employee discussion” of the terms and conditions of employment, which would be unlawful.
However, the General Counsel’s office declined to prosecute an employer based on its policy that prohibited employees from “pressuring” coworkers to connect or communicate via social media, finding that this restriction could not be reasonably read to restrict protected activity. Similarly, the General Counsel’s office concluded that policies limiting employee contact with the media in an effort to ensure a “consistent, controlled” company message to the media (such as limiting media contact to a designated spokesperson, for example), could be permissible, so long as the policies do not limit an employee’s right to discuss working conditions with the media.
The bottom line from the report seems to be that if employers are considering terminating an employee based on an employee’s post on a social media site, they should consult with counsel to determine whether the employee’s activity could qualify as protected concerted activity. Similarly, employers are wise to review social media policies in light of this report, to determine whether any policy terms could be reasonably construed as prohibiting protected activity because merely maintaining an overly broad policy can violate the NLRA, even if the employer never actually disciplines an employee based on the policy.