Having warned employers about the legality of their social media policies under the National Labor Relations Act, NLRB Acting General Counsel Lafe Solomon has apparently turned his attention to at-will employment statements in employer handbooks and manuals. Employers of union and non-union workforces need to pay careful attention to this development.
Many employers use standard language in their handbooks and manuals in which their employees acknowledge that their employment is at-will; that the employer may terminate the employment relationship at any time, for any reason; and that the at-will employment relationship cannot be amended, altered or modified except by a writing signed by a senior member of management. The Acting General Counsel apparently believes that such at-will disclaimers may interfere with or chill the right of employees to engage in protected concerted activity.
In a case that did not receive extensive publicity, the General Counsel’s Office filed an unfair labor practice charge in February 2012 against Hyatt Hotels (NLRB v. Hyatt Hotels Corp., Case 28 CA-061114) in which it alleged that the at-will disclaimer in the company’s employee handbook violated Section 8(a)(1) of the Act to the extent it required employees to acknowledge that their at-will employment status could not be altered except by a writing signed by management. The charge appears to reflect the Acting General Counsel’s belief that such an acknowledgement will have a chilling effect on the Section 7 right of employees to engage in concerted activity for the purpose of organizing to alter their employment relationship with the employer by choosing union representation. The Hyatt case was settled before the issue was presented for a hearing. An Administrative Law Judge issued a similar ruling in a case decided in early February against the American Red Cross; the case was resolved when the Red Cross agreed to modify its at-will disclaimer before the issue could be presented to the Board for review. (NLRB v. Am. Red Cross, 2012 WL 311334, Feb 1, 2012).
This is an important initiative on the part of the Acting General Counsel. As we have seen in the social media context, in analyzing handbooks and policy manuals the Acting General Counsel will apply Section 7 broadly to find statements unlawful to the extent they could be interpreted in almost any fashion to chill employee rights to engage in protected concerted activity. Accordingly, employers may want to take proactive steps to avoid NLRB scrutiny by including a disclaimer in the at-will sections of their handbooks to the effect that the at-will acknowledgment does not, and is not intended to, undermine or interfere with the employee’s right to engage in protected concerted organizing activity under Section 7 of the Act.