Friday, June 1, 2012
More Unhelpful Social Media Guidance From the NLRB
If there's one thing the federal bureaucracy has demonstrated, it's a total inability to match legal concepts with a changing reality. Nowhere is this more true than the labor and employment law field, where large agencies like the EEOC or NLRB are full of people who presumably sit around and do little else but think about the laws they enforce, and yet consistently issue guidance to the private sector about these laws that is, shall we say, less than helpful.
Case in point: the recent NLRB Report that supposedly provides useful guidance on the interaction between the National Labor Relations Act, and social media. Never mind that electronic social media issues have been around for more than a decade, and that Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, YouTube, and the rest have had a stranglehold on the popular imagination for the last eight years or so, the NLRB is still treating these electronic gathering places like the office water cooler or coffee pot. As a result, the Board continues to regulate 21st century communications technology under 1940s and 50s standards relating to so-called "protected, concerted activity". The end result doesn't work very well because, at least in my humble opinion, the Board fails to account for the fact that posting something on Facebook is quantitatively and qualitatively different than talking to two or three people around the Keurig. An employer might have relatively little interest in restricting water cooler chat between two or three people; an employer could have a huge interest in preventing slanderous misinformation from being posted where it instantly becomes viewable by millions within an hour or so.
Important safety tip-while most of the NLRA relates to union activity, the provisions under discussion here cover any employer, unionized or not, with employees engaged in commerce, and that meets the statutory minimums in terms of gross business volume ($50,000 for non-retail establishments, $100,000 for shopping centers and office buildings, and $500,000 for retailers).
Employers are encouraged to have a policy on social media use because it puts people on notice with respect to the kind of conduct that the employer expects, and provides guidance on the use of a relatively novel software. Most companies by now are well aware of the dangers of unregulated social media access and use by their employees-harassment lawsuits, intentional and inadvertent disclosure of trade secrets, violation of Federal Trade Commission regulations, etc. Judging by the nature of the problems that arise in employment cases, however, companies' workforces are not so savvy. Thus the need for the policy. But in trying to guide employers on how to draft a policy that does not restrict protected, concerted activity, the NLRB does nothing but describe arbitrary, inconsistent, and hairsplitting standards that are so context-specific as to be almost useless.
Seriously, it appears as if this document was written by different people, at different times, and that no one bothered to read the assembled Report until after it was published, if then. There are lots of nuanced examples that seem at odds with each other, if not outright contradictory. For example, a policy that prohibits release of confidential "guest, team member, or company information" is illegal, but a policy cautioning employees to be suspicious when asked to disclose confidential information is okay. A policy that directs employees to check with the company external communications or legal department if they are unsure about the information they are about to post , is illegal. So is a policy that precludes offensive, demeaning, abusive or inappropriate remarks. But a policy that prohibits employees from "harming the image and integrity of the company and any harassment, bullying, discrimination, or retaliation that would not be permissible in the workplace is not permissible between coworkers online…" is okay.
There's more. Relatively conventional guidance like this in a social media policy is improper: "think carefully about' friending' coworkers"; "report any unusual or inappropriate internal social media activity"; "you are encouraged to resolve concerns about work by speaking with coworkers, supervisors, or managers"; and "don't comment on any legal matters, including pending litigation or disputes."
If I had to pick an overall theme of the Report, it would be that context is everything. The Report specifically encourages employers to provide as many examples as possible of prohibited activity so that their employees understand that the social media prohibitions are not to be construed to prevent them from unionizing, talking about a union, bad mouthing their bosses, or complaining about their compensation. And so the Report blesses a policy forbidding "statements which are slanderous or detrimental to the company" because it appeared on a list of prohibited conduct that included sex or race harassment and sabotage (now there's a word I don't hear very often in employment policies). The Report noted that such a list communicated an intent by the employer not to restrict the employees from engaging in protected, concerted activity.
When the NLRB began this campaign against social media policies, most lawyers advised their clients to put language in their policies indicating that the policies were expressly not applicable to NLRA protected rights. But without the contextual references mentioned above, it appears from the Report that a generic savings clause will not be sufficient.
There is a sample social media policy attached to the Report that is fairly bland and generic, and probably will not be of much use to the average employer. But for right now this represents the only guidance that we have from the Board with respect to what it will tolerate in this area. Until the courts figure out exactly how social media actually interplay with the NLRA, the smart employer will look to this guidance, and its lawyers, in drafting guidance and dealing with social media issues.