A National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) recently concluded that an employer violated the National Labor Relations Act (Act) by implementing a "no gossip policy" and by firing an employee who violated the policy. The case, Laurus Technical Institute, involved a non-union employer. As we have reported before, the NLRB's jurisdiction covers union and non-union employers alike. We have also talked with you about the NLRB's aggressive approach to policing employer workplace policies. You have been warned!
It appears that in this case, after an employee filed a charge challenging her termination for unsatisfactory work performance and various policy violations, the NLRB's General Counsel's office included an additional charge challenging the employer's "no gossip policy."
The "no gossip policy" was implemented to address a number of workplace problems, problems that you are probably familiar with! The policy provided that gossip would not be tolerated. The policy also prohibited employees from engaging in gossip about the company, other employees or customers and stated that employees who violated the policy would be subject to disciplinary action. The policy defined gossip in a number of different ways, including: "talking about a person's personal life when they are not present; talking about a person's professional life without his/her permission; and creating, sharing or repeating rumors about another person, that are overheard or that constitute hearsay."
The ALJ found that the policy violated the Act because it was overly broad and essentially banned any discussion of an employee's professional life and negative comments/criticisms of other employees. The ALJ found that, as a result, the policy prohibited employees from discussing the terms and conditions of employment, which is an activity clearly protected by the Act. The ALJ concluded that because the policy contained no narrowing or clarifying language, and did it further define any terms, the policy was unlawful.
That last part is interesting to us, because the NLRB has repeatedly emphasized the importance of clarifying language in policies, and has encouraged employers to carefully define terms. It looks to us like the employer in this case gave that a shot, and one could argue that the employer did define gossip carefully. One could also argue that a reasonable reading of the policy would render it lawful. Obviously, the ALJ did not see it that way.
The ALJ also concluded that, because the employee who brought the complaint was terminated, in part, for violating the policy, her termination was also a violation of the Act. The ALJ ordered that the employee be made whole.
This decision is another in a series of decisions attacking employer workplace policies. Unfortunately, this trend is likely to continue. Employers should not simply throw up their hands and give up, however. Instead, employers should work with counsel to careful draft policies and procedures. In addition, employers should continue to closely scrutinize termination decisions that may involve protected activity under the Act.