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ALJ Finds Employee’s Facebook Comments Unrelated to Working Conditions are not Protected Under the NLRA

by Stephen D. Erf, Heather Egan Sussman and Sabrina E. Dunlap

Two weeks ago, we wrote about a decision from an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) (available here) finding that the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) protected an employee’s Facebook comments made about his employer.  Last week, an ALJ issued another decision involving social media and the NLRA, finding that an employee had engaged in some protected activity, but that he was ultimately fired for other, unprotected activity.  In Karl Knauz Motors, a former salesperson claimed that he was fired after he posted pictures and comments on Facebook criticizing his employer’s choice of serving hot dogs at a sales event introducing the new BMW 5-series.  The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) recently issued a report related to social media (found here), in which it noted the employee’s posts in the BMW case were protected activity because they related to the terms and conditions of employment.

While the ALJ agreed that the employee had engaged in protected activity in discussing the sales event, the Judge held that the employer actually terminated the employee for his other Facebook posts, which mocked a co-worker for allowing a teenager to test drive a Land Rover, who ultimately drove the car into a nearby pond.  The Judge found that the NLRA did not protect such a posting because it had no connection to the terms and conditions of employment, and was posted solely by the employee, not as part of a discussion with other employees.  Therefore the employer did not violate the NLRA when it fired the employee.

In addition to the Facebook postings, the Judge also considered whether four provisions of the employer’s handbook violated Section 7 of the NLRA.  The Judge dismissed the complaint regarding a provision that encouraged employees to have a good attitude at work, because it could be read to protect the relationship between the dealer and its customers, rather than to restrict employees’ Section 7 rights.  However, the Judge held that the three remaining provisions, which each limited employees’ right to speak about employment, violated the NLRA because they all could be read as curtailing employees’ Section 7 rights, and if employees complied with these restrictions, they would not be able to discuss working conditions with union representatives or lawyers.

Based on this ALJ decision, employers should continue to exercise caution when making employment decisions based on social media comments.  There continues to be a fine line between protected activity and unprotected activity when it comes to employees’ social media comments about their employers.  In addition, employers should review and possibly revise their handbooks to ensure they cannot be read as restricting employees’ Section 7 rights.




NLRB Releases Report on Social Media Decisions

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 [...]

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