We originally addressed this topic on November 9, 2012, discussing the National Labor Relations Board’s scrutiny of employer handbooks containing employment-at-will provisions. Since these disclaimers are widely used in handbooks – as well as employment applications and offer letters – the NLRB’s sudden focus on such provisions was potentially significant. Employers drew some comfort from two 2012 Advice Memoranda issued by the NLRB’s General Counsel’s Office (Case 32-CA-086799 & Case 28-CA-084365), but both of those Advice Memoranda warned employers that “the law in this area remains unsettled.”
Fast forward to July 2014. Is there anything new on this topic and if so, should employers be concerned? In fact, there have been two noteworthy developments this year.
First, on February 25, 2014, the General Counsel’s Office issued a memorandum on “Mandatory Submissions to Advice” which noted there should be “centralized consideration of certain issues” by the General Counsel’s Office. The memo went on to cite “cases involving ‘at-will’ provisions in employer handbooks” as an area identified for such centralized oversight. Accordingly, the NLRB’s 26 regional offices will submit cases involving at-will provisions to the General Counsel’s Office for guidance, to the extent that prior NLRB case law precedent or earlier Advice Memoranda do not definitively resolve the legal issues being faced. In sum, look for continuing developments coming straight from Washington, D.C., on this subject.
Second, the General Counsel’s Office recently found the following at-will policy of Lionbridge Technologies in Redmond, Washington, did not obstruct employees from organizing a union or interfere with other concerted activity under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act:
Employment at [the Employer] is on an at-will basis unless otherwise stated in a written individual employment agreement signed by the [Senior Vice President of] Human Resources. This means that employment may be terminated by the employee or [the Employer] at any time, for any reason or for no reason, and with or without prior notice.
No one has the authority to make any express or implied representations in connection with, or in any way limit, an employee’s right to resign or [the Employer’s] right to terminate an employee at any time, for any reason or for no reason, with or without prior notice. Nothing in this handbook creates an employment agreement, express or implied, or any other agreement between any employee and [the Employer].
No statement, act, series of events or pattern of conduct can change this at-will relationship.
(Brackets in original).
In finding the above provision to be lawful, the GC’s Office reasoned:
the language, on its face, did not expressly limit any union organizing or concerted activity;
the employer did not promulgate the disclaimer in response to union organizing or concerted activity;
the employer had not applied the policy unlawfully;
employees could not reasonably construe the provision to prohibit union organizing or concerted actions;
the language did not threaten discipline for employees seeking to unionize to change their at-will status; and
the policy did not ask employees to waive any rights they held under Section 7.
In concluding the policy was lawful, the General Counsel’s Office essentially aligned with what employers have long intended regarding their at-will disclaimers: such provisions have everything to do with providing a rock-solid defense to claims by ex-employees for breach of an implied employment contract and nothing whatsoever to do with inhibiting union organizing or other concerted activity. While the latest news from Washington, D.C., is clearly favorable and pro-employer, employers should nevertheless carefully review any at-will policy to ensure it is lawful, in light of the NLRB’s continued interest in scrutinizing such provisions.