October 22, 2014

More Guidance from the NLRB on Social Media: When Must Employers Not Fire an Employee for an Offensive Facebook Post?

In a recent blog post, we addressed three Advice Memos issued by the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB or the “Board”) Division of Advice, which provided useful guidance on the types of social media conduct that do not enjoy protection under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). On August 18, 2011, not long after the publication of those Advice Memos, the NLRB’s General Counsel issued a lengthy memorandum to all Regional Directors that summarizes the Board’s resolution of more than one dozen “social media cases,” including the three cases discussed in our prior blog post. As a contrast to that post, this post will focus on the cases in the August 18, 2011, Memorandum where the General Counsel found that an employer’s discharge of an employee violated the NLRA. The August 18, 2011, Memorandum also provides useful guidance on social media policies, which are addressed below as well.

When Not to Fire an Employee Based on a Social Media Post

The August 18, 2011, Memorandum summarizes four cases that concluded that the employer’s discipline violated the NLRA. In a nutshell, these cases involved the termination of one or more employees based on the following social media conduct:

  • While preparing for a meeting with management, an employee asked coworkers on her Facebook page for their reaction to another employee’s complaints about work quality and staffing levels at the employer;
  • An employee complained on her Facebook page about her supervisor’s refusal to permit a union representative to assist her in responding to a customer complaint about the employee;
  • A salesmen at a car dealership criticized on his Facebook page the dealership’s handling of a sales event intended to promote a new car model and posted mildly mocking photographs that included his coworkers;
  • Employees posted on Facebook about the employer’s failure to withhold state income taxes, resulting in the employees’ receiving payment demands from state tax authorities.

In all of these cases, employees posted on their own Facebook page, on their own time, and using their own equipment.

When viewed as a group, these cases have a common thread that provides substantial insight into how the Board analyzes social media cases. Most importantly, the subject matter of each of these posts related to the terms and conditions of employment, the exercise of rights conferred by the NLRA, or other matters traditionally considered “protected activity” under the Boards’ precedent. The topics included: (a) preparation for a discussion with management about employees’ job performance and the employer’s staffing levels; (b) the right in a unionized workplace to union representation during an investigatory interview by the employer; (c) conduct by the employer (a sales event) that could have an impact on employees’ compensation (their sales commissions); and (d) the employer’s administration of income tax withholdings.

Of equal significance, in each of these situations, the General Counsel concluded that employees were collaborating, otherwise known as “concerted activity.” In the first case, the employee was seeking assistance from coworkers in preparation for a discussion with management. In the second case, the employee was discussing supervisory actions with coworkers who were her Facebook friends. In the third case, the employee was expressing the sentiment of his coworkers about the sales event. In the fourth case, employees were sharing concerns about the employer’s failure to withhold state income taxes. None of these cases could be said to involve individual gripes.

While the fulcrum of these cases is the General Counsel’s determination that the disciplined employees were discussing protected subject matters and doing so in concert with their coworkers, there is one other common thread that can help employers weigh risks when deciding whether an employee’s social media post justifies discipline. In each of the cases, the offending Facebook post was either the culmination of an on-going dispute with the employer or the continuation of a pre-existing conversation among employees. In contrast to these fact patterns, the Facebook posts discussed in our previous blog entry and upon which the Division of Advice relied to justify discipline were relatively spontaneous and had no real history behind them.

Profanity Generally Will Not Justify Discipline for Protected Concerted Activity

According to the General Counsel, the offending Facebook posts in these cases included “swearing and/or sarcasm,” use of a “short-hand expletive,” and references to management personnel as an “asshole” and a “scumbag.” Nonetheless, in each case, the General Counsel concluded that the employer’s termination violated the NLRA.

The General Counsel’s analysis in these cases seems to give employees a license to curse. In finding that an employee did not lose the NLRA’s protections after calling her supervisor a “scumbag,” the General Counsel relied on the following facts: (a) “the Facebook posts did not interrupt the work of any employee because they occurred outside the workplace and during nonworking time;” (b) “the comments were made during an online employee discussion on supervisory action;” (c) “the name-calling was not accompanied by verbal or physical threats;” (d) “the Board has found more egregious name-calling protected;” and (e) “the employee’s Facebook postings were provoked by the supervisor’s unlawful” conduct.

In social media cases, the first three or four factors listed above typically will be present. Thus, the Board effectively is telling employers that they must have a thicker skin when it comes to employees’ raunchy social media posts.

Disclaimers and Carefully Crafted Policies Are Critical

Throughout the August 18, 2011, Memorandum, the General Counsel identified social media policy provisions that the General Counsel deemed overbroad and in violation of the NLRA. At first blush, these determinations are portentous for employers because employers routinely include the challenged provisions in their social media policy. However, the August 18, 2011, Memorandum suggests — at least implicitly — how employers can retain these commonly used policy provisions without running afoul of the NLRA.

The list of policy provisions found to be overbroad is lengthy but worthy of repetition. The list includes the following:

  1. Inappropriate Discussions: Prohibition against “inappropriate discussions about the company, management, and/or coworkers;”
  2. Defamation: Prohibition on any social media post that “constitutes embarrassment, harassment or defamation of the [company] or of any [company] employee, officer, board member, representative, or staff member;”
  3. Disparagement: Prohibition against “employees making disparaging comments when discussing the company or the employee’s superiors, coworkers and/or competitors;”
  4. Privacy: Prohibition on “revealing, including through the use of photographs, personal information regarding coworkers, company clients, partners, or customers without their consent;”
  5. Confidentiality: Prohibition on “disclosing inappropriate or sensitive information about the Employer;”
  6. Contact Information: Prohibition on “using the company name, address, or [related] information on [employees’] personal profiles;”
  7. Logo: Prohibition on using “the Employer’s logos and photographs of the Employer’s store, brand, or product, without written authorization;”
  8. Photographs: Prohibition against “employees posting pictures of themselves in any media . . . which depict the Company in any way, including company uniform [or] corporate logo.”

Removing all of the prohibitions described above would eviscerate most social media policies. Fortunately, such drastic action does not appear to be necessary.

In finding these rules unlawful, the General Counsel emphasized not only their overbreadth (i.e., “the [rules] utilized broad terms that would commonly apply to protected criticism of . . . terms and conditions of employment”), but also that “the rule[s] contained no limiting language to inform employees that [the rules] did not apply to Section 7 activity.” This italicized language suggests that the rules quoted above will not violate the NLRA as long as the policy contains a disclaimer which explicitly informs employees that the policy will not be construed or applied in a manner that improperly interferes with employees’ rights under Section 7 of the NLRA.

The General Counsel also provided some guidance for policy drafting by rejecting challenges to several other policy provisions. One upheld policy, for example, provided that “no employee could ever be pressured to ‘friend’ or otherwise connect with a coworker via social media.” The General Counsel reasoned that this policy was “sufficiently specific,” “clearly applied only to harassing conduct,” and could not be read to prohibit employees from friending for purposes of engaging in activity protected under the NLRA.

In a second example, the General Counsel approved of a policy that required employees to “maintain confidentiality about sensitive information” and to direct all media inquiries to the company’s public affairs office after stating that the employee was not authorized to comment. The General Counsel determined that this policy did not violate the NLRA because it was intended only “to ensure a consistent, controlled company message,” was not a blanket prohibition on all contact between employees and the media, and “did not convey the impression that employees could not speak out on the terms and conditions of their employment.”

These examples suggest that an employer can increase the likelihood that its social media policy will survive the NLRB’s scrutiny if the policy emphasizes the legitimate purposes that it seeks to achieve, such as protecting the employer’s good will and brand reputation. In addition, restrictions in the policy on employees’ social media conduct should, where practicable, be narrowly tailored to meet those legitimate objectives.

© 2011 Littler Mendelson.  All Rights Reserved.

Philip L. Gordon is the Chair of Littler Mendelson’s Privacy and Data Protection Practice Group. He has years of experience litigating privacy-based claims and counseling clients on all aspects of workplace privacy. He blogs at Littler’s Workplace Privacy Counsel, where this post originally appeared on August 22, 2011.

Philip Gordon: When Can Employers Lawfully Fire an Employee for an Offensive Facebook Post? Ask the NLRB

Ever since the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) filed a complaint, last November, against ambulance service provider AMR for firing an employee who had called her supervisor a “mental patient” on her Facebook wall, employers have been forced to ask themselves the following question: Do I really need to worry that the NLRB will knock on my door every time I discipline an employee for an obnoxious or offensive Facebook post related to work? Until two weeks ago, there was no easy answer to that question. The AMR case and virtually all of the other “Facebook cases” initiated by the NLRB had either settled or had not yet resulted in a published decision. Then, last month, the NLRB’s Office of General Counsel issued three Advice Memoranda in rapid succession that provide at least some guidance for employers trying to navigate the intersection of social media and labor law.

Two of the Advice Memoranda draw the same bright line rule: an employee who communicates about work through Facebook but only with family or friends cannot invoke the protections of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) to avoid dismissal. In one of these two cases, an employee of a residential home for homeless individuals with significant mental illness posted facetious comments about residents on her Facebook wall. Only a personal friend responded to the Facebook posts, and none of the employee’s coworkers were her Facebook friends. The General Counsel concluded that the employee’s Facebook posts were not protected because the employee was merely communicating with personal friends about work. In addition: (a) her posts did not relate to the terms or conditions of employment; (b) the employee did not discuss her posts with coworkers, and no coworkers responded to them; and (c) the employee was not seeking to induce collective action and her posts were not an outgrowth of collective concerns.

The second case was a slightly tougher one. There, a bartender complained through Facebook to his step-sister about this employer’s policy barring him from sharing in tips given to servers even though the bartenders helped to serve food. The General Counsel concluded that the bartender could not rely on the NLRA to reverse his firing, even though the post related to the terms of employment, for the same reasons that the employee of the residential home could not do so – the employee did not discuss his post with coworkers and the employee was not seeking to induce collective actions.

The third case provides the most useful guidance, drawing the line between individual gripes (unprotected) and collective activity (protected). In that case, the employee made the following comments about her store’s Assistant Manager:

I swear if this tyranny doesn’t end in this store, they are about to get a wakeup call because lots are about to quit.
* * * *
[Assistant Manager] is being a super mega puta! Its retarded I get chewed out cuz we got people putting stuff in the wrong spot and then the customer wanting it for that price . . . . I’m talking to [Store Manager] about this shit because if it don’t change [Company] can kiss my royal white ass.

The General Counsel concluded that the employer could lawfully fire the employee because the posts expressed only an individual gripe, i.e., the employee’s own “frustration regarding his individual dispute with the Assistant Manager over mispriced or misplaced sale items.” The General Counsel also concluded that the responses to the posts by the employee’s coworkers did not convert these individual gripes into collective action because those comments reflected the coworkers’ understanding that the employee was speaking only on behalf of himself. One coworker laughed (“bahaha like!”); one coworker asked why the employee was so “wound up;” and a third expressed only emotional support (i.e., “hang in there”).

In each of the three Advice Memoranda, the General Counsel referred to the same or similar legal standards. These standards also provide useful guidance and include the following

  • Protected: When the employee “acting with or the authority of” coworkers (a) “seeks to initiate, induce or prepare for group action,” or (b) “brings truly group complaints to the attention of management.”
  • Protected: The employee’s activities are “the logical outgrowth of concerns expressed by the employees collectively.”
  • Unprotected: The employee is engaging in activity “solely by and on behalf of the employee himself.”
  • Unprotected: The employee’s comments are “mere griping” as opposed to “group action.”

While these guidelines and the Advice Memoranda obviously do not address the full range of Facebook conduct that intersects with the workplace, they do at least provide some guideposts for employers when deciding whether to discipline or fire an employee based on his or her obnoxious or offensive Facebook post.

© 2011 Littler Mendelson.  All Rights Reserved.

Philip L. Gordon is the Chair of Littler Mendelson’s Privacy and Data Protection Practice Group. He has years of experience litigating privacy-based claims and counseling clients on all aspects of workplace privacy. He blogs at Littler’s Workplace Privacy Counsel, where this post originally appeared on August 1, 2011.

Philip Gordon: “Social Checks” Come of Age — What Does It Mean for Employers?

Last month, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) published a letter closing its investigation into whether an “Internet and social media background screening service used by employers in pre-employment background screening” complied with the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). At first blush, the letter appears to be a non-event. The FTC did not impose a penalty but also admonished that its “action is not to be construed as a determination that a violation may not have occurred.” While not much can be drawn from this equivocal result, the FTC’s letter does contain the following important conclusion: the “social check” service in question, known as Social Intelligence, “is a consumer reporting agency because it assembles or evaluates consumer report information that is furnished to third parties that use such information as a factor in establishing a consumer’s eligibility for employment.” Put into plain English, employers that rely on a social check service, like Social Intelligence, to search social media for information about job candidates must comply with the FCRA.

This conclusion likely will have an impact on a substantial number of employers. According to a recent study by the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM), more than 50% of employers are relying on social media for recruitment purposes, up from 34% in 2008, and another 20% plan to use social media for recruiting in the future. The SHRM study does not address the percentage of employers that conduct these searches exclusively in-house, in which case the FCRA would not apply, as compared to those that rely on a third-party service, in which case the FCRA likely would apply. However, the fact that the social check space is beginning to fill with new enterprises, like Social Intelligence, suggests that the number of employers that are relying on third parties to conduct social checks has grown significantly.

When the FCRA does apply, employers will need to take the following steps vis-à-vis any applicant who is the subject of a social check. First, review the notice and authorization currently provided to applicants before more traditional background checks are conducted to ensure that those documents encompass social media searches. Second, ensure that applicants who may be eliminated from consideration based in whole or in part on the results of a social check receive a pre-adverse action notice which provides the applicant with the report received by the employer, the FTC’s “A Summary Of Your Rights Under the FCRA,” and an opportunity to dispute the apparently adverse information with the service provider which ran the social check. Third, upon rejecting the applicant, send a final adverse action notice to the applicant containing the language required by the FCRA.

These legal compliance requirements are straightforward enough, but they, and in particular, the pre-adverse action notice requirement, highlight vexing practical issues: What social media information should be reported in the first place? Is the information relevant to the hiring decision? Is the information reliable? There can be no question that social media posts may contain information that employers may not lawfully consider when vetting an applicant, such as disability, protected and lawful off-duty conduct, or genetic information. There also can be no question that social media posts often contain information that warrants rejection of a candidate. According to a recent study by the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics, more than 40% of respondents had disciplined an employee based on his or her social media conduct. However, these two groups of information set only the polar extremes; employers still must determine what, if anything, will be reported concerning the vast range of social media content falling in the middle and how they will fairly evaluate that information. Social Intelligence, for example, notes on its Web site that its customer set-up tools leave to the employer responsibility for “defining screening filters (for evaluating individuals) and redaction criteria (for censoring information).”

Reliability is another critical issue for employers using social media to evaluate job candidates. In the case of more traditional pre-employment screening, the nature of the information itself engenders a higher probability, albeit not certainty, that information is accurate. Court systems, educational institutions, and employers, for example, have an inherent interest in maintaining accurate records for their own legitimate business purposes. By contrast, social media are replete with false, doctored, and biased information about others. Social Intelligence suggests a solution to this issue by noting on its Web site that it reports “only information the applicant has created himself.” However, completely eliminating social media information posted by third persons arguably reduces the effectiveness of a social check to some extent. Perhaps more importantly, social media posts apparently created by the author can be forged. I have recently counseled clients on two separate occasions where employees denied having posted on their Facebook wall negative information about the employer or co-workers, credibly claiming that others had stolen their log-in credentials or hacked into their account.

The absence of any inherent reliability in most social media information emphasizes the importance of providing applicants with a pre-adverse notice even when there is no legal obligation to do so. Employers easily could lose potentially outstanding employees by relying on social media content that is false, misleading or inaccurate. Even if apparently adverse information turns out to be accurate and true, the applicant’s explanation of that information could demonstrate maturity and honesty as opposed to evasiveness and bad character.

With use of social media for hiring becoming increasingly common, human resources professionals and in-house employment counsel need to scrutinize their organization’s use, or potential use, of this new tool and answer several challenging questions. Most importantly, how should social checks supplement more traditional means of vetting applicants’ credentials and pre-employment screening for adverse information? What types of information does the organization need and how will that information be weighted? Next, will the information be gathered through in-house resources or an external service provider, such as Social Intelligence? If the latter, how will FCRA compliance be worked into the social check process? Finally, particularly given the newness of social checks, employers should evaluate them at least annually with one key question in mind: Have the social checks improved the effectiveness of the organization’s hiring process and the quality of new hires?

Philip L. Gordon is the Chair of Littler Mendelson’s Privacy and Data Protection Practice Group. He has years of experience litigating privacy-based claims and counseling clients on all aspects of workplace privacy. He blogs at Littler’s Workplace Privacy Counsel, where this post originally appeared on July 11, 2011.

Philip Gordon: Quon Decision Provides Useful Guidance for Private Employers While Skirting Broad Pronouncements

As anticipated in our blog post describing the oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court in City of Ontario v. Quon (pdf), the Court declined today to make any broad pronouncements concerning employee privacy rights in electronic communications using employer-issued equipment. The Court reserved expressing an opinion given the newness and evolving nature of cell phone and text message communications. Instead, the Court held that the City of Ontario Police Department did not violate the Fourth Amendment rights of a SWAT team member, Sgt. Jeff Quon, by reviewing text messages sent and received by Quon on a department-issued pager because, even assuming that Quon had a reasonable privacy expectation, the City’s review of his text messages was motivated by a legitimate work-related purpose and was not excessive in scope. Notwithstanding its narrow and fact-specific nature, the Court’s ruling still provides useful guidance for private employers.

Most importantly, the Court emphasized, in the following language, the importance of a well crafted and broadly distributed electronic resources policy when defending against an employee’s claim that an employer tortiously reviewed the employee’s electronic communications:

[E]mployer policies concerning communications will of course shape the reasonable expectations of their employees, especially to the extent that such policies are clearly communicated.

The Court also highlighted a key distinction between corporate e-mail and text messages sent by cell phone, i.e., such text messages typically are transmitted through the cell phone provider’s server, rather than an employer-owned server. In Quon, this distinction was important because the department’s e-mail policy focused on e-mail sent through the department’s server and did not mention text messages. However, the Court emphasized that the department had informed SWAT team members, when issuing pagers to them, that the e-mail policy would be applied to text messages transmitted through the service provider. Similarly, private employers should ensure that their electronic resources policy is not limited to e-mail or to communications transmitted through the company’s e-mail server.

Although not deciding the issue of Quon’s privacy rights, the Court did give some weight in passing to Quon’s contention that a management-level police official had created an expectation of privacy for Quon by telling him that the official would not audit Quon’s text messages if Quon paid any required overage charges. Private employers should take care through policy language and training to avoid a situation where an employee could allege that a management-level employee countermanded corporate policy aimed at defeating employees’ privacy expectations in their electronic communications.

The Court’s holding — that Quon’s claim failed because the department’s search was legitimate and reasonable — demonstrates that private employers can substantially reduce their potential exposure on privacy-based claims by acting reasonably when searching and reviewing employees’ electronic communications. In Quon, for example, the department initiated its investigation for the legitimate purpose of determining whether the department’s character restrictions on text messages were too low and, therefore, forced SWAT team members to pay overage charges for work-related texts. In addition, the department reviewed only a relevant sampling of Quon’s texts, and the internal investigator who conducted the review redacted all messages sent or received by Quon during non-working hours. The department’s precautions demonstrate that, by conducting an investigation to accomplish a legitimate business purpose and in a manner that is not excessive, private employers can defeat claims based upon a review of an employee’s electronic communications, even if a court were to find that the employee had a reasonable expectation of privacy in those communications.

While private employers can take heart from Quon, they also should take heed of the following statement by the Court:

[The department’s] audit of messages on Quon’s employer-provided pager was not nearly as intrusive as a search of his personal e-mail account or pager, or a wiretap on his home phone line, would have been.”

As employees increasingly access personal e-mail accounts using employer-issued equipment and rely more heavily on personal smart phones to conduct company business, the privacy issues confronted by private employers (and the courts) will become only more complex. Here again, a well crafted and broadly distributed policy that puts employees on notice of how and when the employer will access these communications can go a long way towards strengthening the employer’s hand in litigation. At the same time, employers should beware that, as reflected by a recent decision of the New Jersey Supreme Court, even the most comprehensive electronic resources policy may not always win the day.

Philip L. Gordon blogs at Littler Mendelson’s Workplace Privacy Counsel and this post originally appeared here on June 17, 2010. Click here to read all posts by this author.

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