NLRB: Secret Recording of Workplace Meeting Is Held to Be Protected Activity

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The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has ruled that an employer committed an unfair labor practice when it fired a worker for secretly recording a meeting with management. While the facts of the case were unusual, the current NLRB, which increasingly has been scrutinizing and invalidating employer workplace policies, may well apply the rule more broadly.

Here, the NLRB based its decision in part on the fact that the employer did not have a policy prohibiting secret recordings. Thus, concerned employers should make sure they have such a policy. But even with it, employers must use caution when disciplining employees for conduct that could be characterized as being for the benefit of other employees, that is, so-called “concerted activity,” which is protected by the National Labor Relations Act.

The case at issue, Stephens Media LLC d/b/a Hawaii Tribune-Herald,1 involved a union employee who secretly recorded a meeting with his manager, after the manager allegedly refused to allow him to bring a co-worker to the meeting as a witness. The employee thought the refusal might violate his Weingarten rights.2 The employer did not have a policy prohibiting the possession of recording devices or recording others without their notification and consent, and there was no Hawaii state law prohibiting such conduct.

Because the employee agreed with a group of his co-workers that the meeting should be recorded to document potential labor violations, the NLRB determined that the employee’s actions were “protected concerted activity” and overturned the employer’s decision to fire the employee for making the secret recording. Also, the Board required the employer to rescind a policy it implemented after this incident prohibiting secret recordings. The Board said the new rule was “overly broad.”

Of course, employees can lose their protection under the Act if their actions are “sufficiently egregious.” But, in Stephens Media, the NLRB ruled, based on the facts of the case, that since the employee reasonably believed the meeting could result in discipline, the employee’s actions were not egregious. In making this ruling, the NLRB highlighted that no employer policy or state law prohibited the employee’s conduct.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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