In 2012, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or the “Board”) found a “courtesy” policy unlawful. Since then, the NLRB has continued to create more and more tension between the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA or the “Act”) and employers’ legitimate interests in maintaining and enforcing workplace guidelines governing courtesy in a nondiscriminatory fashion.
This article focuses on the maintenance and enforcement of courtesy and civility rules. In these cases, the Board has taken extreme positions that increasingly ignore competing interests and obligations of employers. Among the obligations that can conflict with Section 7 in this context, employers must protect their employees from harassment, including on the basis of sex and race, by disciplining employees making harassing comments and engaging in harassing behavior and by maintaining civil workplaces that are not conducive to harassment. Employers also have a legitimate interest in maintaining a civil workplace simply to promote employee productivity and job satisfaction, as well as ensuring appropriate levels of customer service.
The Framework: Regulating Workplace Rules Under the NLRA
Employees have the right to engage in concerted activity under Section 7 of the NLRA. Concerted activity is activity undertaken for the employees’ mutual aid and protection, including, for example, discussing the terms and conditions of employment, such as wages, policies, and workplace treatment. Under Section 8(a)(1) of the Act, it is an unfair labor practice for an employer “to interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise of the rights guaranteed in section 7.”
Under the general framework of the Act, the National Labor Relations Board regulates employer maintenance and enforcement of generally applicable workplace rules in several ways.
First, an employer commits an unfair labor practice, under Section 8(a)(1), if it maintains a rule that would reasonably tend to chill employees in the exercise of their Section 7 rights. If it expressly restricts Section 7 activity, the rule is unlawful. Further, if it does not expressly restrict Section 7 activity, the rule is still unlawful under Lutheran Heritage Village if “(1) employees would reasonably construe the language to prohibit Section 7 activity; (2) the rule was promulgated in response to union activity; or (3) the rule has been applied to restrict the exercise of Section 7 rights.” In reading the rule, the Board should “refrain from reading particular phrases in isolation.” Similarly, the Board should not seek out “arguable ambiguity . . . through parsing the language of the rule, viewing [a] phrase . . . in isolation, and attributing to the [employer] an intent to interfere with employee rights.” Lafayette Park Hotel.
Second, employers may not discipline employees for engaging in protected activity. In the event that “the very conduct for which employees are disciplined is itself protected concerted activity,” then the discipline violates Section 8(a)(1) regardless of the employer’s motive or a showing of animus. Burnup & Sims, Inc. Similarly, if an employee violates a workplace rule and is disciplined, the discipline is unlawful if the employee “violated the rule by (1) engaging in protected conduct or (2) engaging in conduct that otherwise implicates the concerns underlying Section 7 of the Act.” Continental Group, Inc.