Beware of the Literal and Hypothetical When Considering Work Rules

National Labor Relations Board activity in the area of work rules, among other areas, has become the new normal. Employers have come to expect that the Board will find a work rule unlawful if the rule, taken literally, could hypothetically interfere with an employee’s right to engaged in “concerted activities” – legal speak for two or more employees raising issues about the terms or conditions of their employment. Now, the Board is also finding success on appeal.

Most recently, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals decided Hyundai America Shipping Agency, Inc. v. NLRB, a case in which Hyundai appealed the Board’s finding that certain work rules in its handbook violated the National Labor Relations Act because they had a tendency to interfere with its employees’ right to engaged in concerted activities. Those work rules included: (1) a prohibition on employees discussing matters under investigation by the company, (2) a limit on the disclosure of information from Hyundai’s electronic communication and information systems, (3) a prohibition on performing non-work activities during “working hours,” and (4) a provision urging employees to make complaints to their immediate supervisor or human resources employees rather than to fellow employees. The Court affirmed the Board’s decision as to the first three rules, holding that:

A rule prohibiting, as a blanket matter, the discussion of matters under investigation is problematic because it limits an employee’s right to discuss his or her own employment;

A rule prohibiting the disclosure of information on the employer’s electronic systems except to authorized persons is problematic because it could prevent an employee from sharing non-confidential information, including information about the terms or conditions of his or her employment; and

A rule prohibiting an employee from performing non-company work during “working hours” is unlawful because the term working hours – unlike “working time” – could be read to prohibit employees from communicating during breaks.

Interestingly, the Court reversed the Board as to the fourth rule, finding that a rule “urging” employees with a complaint to speak with supervisors or HR rather than co-workers is permissible because it merely urges employees to so act, rather than acting as a prohibition.

So what does this mean for employers? First, the Board’s assault on employer work rules will continue, given that this is an area of frequent disconnect between the Board’s interpretation of the law and common employer practice. Second, employers need to read their rules literally and consider hypothetical scenarios, even when the rule is proper and sensible in 95 percent or more of such scenarios.

For example, an employer can limit employee communications during an investigation, but not all such discussions on a per se basis. The employer should evaluate the issue on a case-by-case basis and consider whether it has a legitimate business justification requiring confidentiality (such as when there is a basis to believe that a disclosure will put evidence at risk or otherwise compromise the investigation). Likewise, an employer may very well expect (legitimately) that its employees will not disclose internal company information, but the rule memorializing that expectation should be limited to confidential information and exclude information about one’s own terms and conditions of employment, so as not to chill the activities of employees who want to talk about their own employment terms. Lastly, it makes all the sense in the world for employers to expect that their employees will perform only work activities while working. But the proper terminology should be used to ensure that employees are not restricted during breaks.

It is noteworthy that, in finding the rule about disclosing information on the employer’s electronic systems improper, the Hyundai Court acknowledged that a “reasonable reader” might understand the rule to be limited to confidential information, which would make it permissible. Unfortunately, “reasonableness” is not the standard; what is possible is. Accordingly, employers would be wise to review their rules carefully and literally to make sure that they are using the most precise language possible to describe the prohibited conduct and that the prohibitions cannot be interpreted – even in a strained way – to limit protected conduct.

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