Since the arrival of social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, employers have worried about protecting themselves from disparaging comments by their employees. Meanwhile, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has intensified its scrutiny of employers’ social media policies and whether such policies prohibit employees from discussing the terms and conditions of their employment. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) gives employees the right to act together “to improve terms and conditions of employment or otherwise improve their lot as employees,” and social media has become one of the main avenues through which employees do so. An employer who violates this right and disciplines or fires an employee for engaging in protected activity faces big penalties, including having to reinstate the employee.
In a series of rulings over the past few years, the NLRB has taken the position that social media sites are “virtual water coolers,” and whatever employees have a right to discuss around the workplace with respect to the terms and conditions of employment, they may also discuss on social media. In an August 22, 2014 decision, the NLRB decided that “liking” a Facebook post that deals with working conditions is also “protected concerted speech.” Three D, LLC (Triple Play), 361 NLRB No. 31 (2014). The NLRB found that Triple Play Sports Bar and Grille violated the NLRA when it terminated two employees for participating in a Facebook discussion about the additional state income taxes they owed because of the employer’s withholding mistakes, including the one who had only “liked” the post.
The NLRB concluded that the Facebook discussion was protected activity because “the purpose of [the] employee communications is to seek and provide mutual support looking toward group action to encourage the employer to address problems in terms or conditions of employment, not to disparage its product or services or undermine its reputation….” The judge found that the employee’s “like” “expressed his support for the others who were sharing their concerns and therefore ‘constituted participation in the discussion that was sufficiently meaningful as to rise to the level of’ protected, concerted activity.” In balancing the interest of Triple Play’s owners in preventing harmful comments by their employees, the NLRB held that the comments were not “so disloyal” as to lose protection under the NLRA.
The NLRB also reviewed Triple Play’s Internet/Blogging Policy, and found that restricting online communications involving “confidential or proprietary information about the Company, or…inappropriate discussions about the company, management, and/or co-workers” violated the NLRA because it could reasonably include protected discussions. While the NLRB acknowledged that the policy did not “explicitly restrict protected activity,” it was still problematic because employees could reasonably interpret it as “proscribing any discussions about their terms and conditions of employment [that the employer] deemed ‘inappropriate.’”
As this decision makes clear, because a “like” standing alone can be protected, employers should tread carefully when considering taking action against employees for their social media activities and employer social media policies should be narrowly tailored to avoid prohibiting protected discussion. The NLRB will likely continue to scrutinize employer social media policies, and now is the time for employers to assess how to properly limit and respond to employees’ social media use.