From the Presidential debates to lawn signs, and TV ads to the Voters’ Pamphlet in your mailbox, there’s no denying that election season is in full swing. For employers, the home stretch to November 6 means not only around-the-clock coverage, but the potential for spirited debates—and resulting employee discord—in the workplace. Although with limited exception political activity or affiliation is not a protected status, and Oregon employers no longer have to worry about giving employees time off to vote due to mail-in ballots, the impending election still has significant potential to invoke myriad workplace issues ranging from discrimination and harassment to free speech and bullying. Here are some “dos and don’ts” to help guide employers over the next several weeks and keep polarizing political discourse from disrupting your workplace:
* Do set the tone. If you haven’t already, employers should clearly communicate their expectations to employees and foster a culture of mutual respect and understanding. Diversity—even with respect to politics—can be embraced as a positive. Employers lead the way by conveying their acceptance of varying ideologies, and encouraging employees to handle differences of opinion civilly and without letting it affect normal operations. Political conversations between employees often lead to discussion of sensitive (and protected) issues such as race, religion, immigration, and women’s rights. However, election season should not provide a license for employees to harass or bully one another by attacking contrasting political views, bragging about which ballot measures did or did not pass, or gloating over a candidate’s defeat. Employers can minimize risk by reminding employees that their policies prohibiting harassment, discrimination and retaliation apply to all political discussions, and investigating any complaints promptly. Moreover, some employers have in fact included political activity in their EEO or anti-harassment policies, so it may be prudent to dust off and review your handbook, because employees certainly will know what you have promised. Similarly, given that unions are frequently politically active, some union contracts prohibit politics-based discrimination.
* Don’t allow bad behavior in the name of “free speech.” Contrary to popular belief, there is no blanket right of “free speech” in a private workplace. The First Amendment covers only state action, and private sector employers are therefore free to limit political discussions in the workplace. Be careful, however, that any such limitations don’t run afoul of laws such as the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) (see next "do," below) or federal and state anti-discrimination laws.
Read on for more election "dos and don'ts" below!
* Do be mindful of the NLRA. The NLRA offers some protections for employees’ political speech, both on and off the job, and even if you do not have a union-based workforce. As the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) states on its website, employees have the right to work together to “improve their pay and working conditions or fix job-related problems, even if they aren’t in a union.” (See https://www.nlrb.gov/concerted-activity). Employers should be particularly cautious to ensure that any restrictions on employee communications, political or otherwise, don’t impede on employees’ ability to act in concert with respect to work-related matters such that they would run afoul of Section 7 protections.
* Don’t forget about social media. Undoubtedly, social media has played a significant role in 2012—and it’s likely becoming an increasing presence in your employees’ day-to-day lives, too. Employers should remind employees of any policies regulating internet usage in the workplace, along with any policies specifically governing social media. Although such policies should encourage employees to be respectful, they should not be so broad-sweeping as to prohibit political discussions over social media, as this again has the risk of crossing over into Section 7 protections referenced above. The NLRB has stated that employers should not “caution employees against online discussions that could become heated or controversial.”
* Do be cautious of Company political endorsements. It’s common for employers to provide general election information to employees, such as informing them when ballots are mailed or simply encouraging them to vote. In recent years, however, many employers have taken it further and perhaps garnered unintended press for making political statements—most often during election season. Although there is no per se law prohibiting a private company from voicing its own political views to employees, employers who do so should also make clear that employees retain the sole right to vote as they choose. Employers should also be mindful of the resulting pitfalls. For example, would a gay or lesbian employee be more likely to bring a sexual orientation discrimination claim against an employer that had voiced its opposition to same-sex marriage? There’s no way to know, but most employers probably wouldn’t want to be the test case.
* Don’t enforce policies on a selective basis. Many employers maintain no-solicitation or no-distribution policies, which generally prohibit employees from requesting support for or distributing materials about non-work events or causes. To be effective, however, these policies must be both strictly and evenly enforced. Don’t let a Democrat post political flyers, but not a Republican. And don’t let the CEO hand out buttons supporting the candidate of his or her choice, but prohibit employees from doing the same thing.
* Do know if local or state law protects provides greater protections. As mentioned above, political activity is not a protected status for most employees working for private employers under federal law, and only a handful of states have promulgated laws making it unlawful for employers to discriminate or retaliate based on an employee’s political activity or affiliation. Oregon in Washington have not, but California is one of the few states that has. Some protections are derived on a more local level, such as the City of Seattle, which prohibits discrimination based on political ideology, affiliation or similar terms. Public employers need to be ever mindful of the circumstances when political speech crosses the threshold into free speech, thus precluding adverse action on that basis.
* Don’t hesitate to reach out if things get sticky. Election-related employment issues can be complex and difficult to navigate. If you run into problems in the pre- or post-election flurry, contact your employment attorney. Although it may seem that all anyone cares about these days is the election, you’ve still got a business to run—and help is available.
As we blogged about earlier this week, there have been a lot of recent cases before the National Labor Relations Board ("NLRB") testing the validity under federal labor laws of employer policies seeking to restrict employee use of social media.
The NLRB isn't the only place action is happening recently in this developing clash between employment law and social media. Responding to an emerging controversy about whether employers can require disclosure of social media passwords during the hiring process, the California Legislature has passed Assembly Bill 1844, which Governor Jerry Brown signed in late September. It takes effect on January 1, 2013.
This legislation prohibits an employer from requiring or requesting that an employee or job applicant disclose a user name or password for the purpose of accessing personal social media. AB 1844 also prohibits requiring or requesting that an employee or applicant access personal social media in the presence of the employer, or divulge any personal social media. Finally, it also prohibits retaliation against an employee or applicant for not complying with an employer's request for such information.
The law does contain a few limited exceptions. An employer may request that an employee divulge personal social media that the employer reasonably believes to be relevant to an investigation of allegations of employee misconduct or employee violation of law, provided that the social media is used solely for purposes of that investigation. Additionally, the law does not preclude an employer from requiring or requesting that an employee disclose a user name, password or other method for the purpose of accessing an employer-issued electronic device.
With the passage of this law, California becomes the third state (along with Maryland and Illinois) to legislatively limit employer access to social media accounts. Companies with employees in California should assess their hiring and employment practices to make sure they are in compliance with these new restrictions.
The National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) continues to closely scrutinize employers’ social media policies and practices. As employers struggle to craft policies that promote productivity while at the same time protect employees’ rights, both unionized and non-unionized employers need to be aware of recent NLRB decisions and their impact on employer policies:
Social-Media Based Termination Can Be Acceptable, But Rule Requiring “Courtesy” Is Not
On September 28, 2012, a three-member panel of the NLRB affirmed the termination of a car salesman who posted photographs on Facebook ridiculing his employer, but it rejected the employer’s rule requiring courteous behavior. (Karl Knauz Motors Inc., 358 N.L.R.B. No. 164, Sept. 28, 2012 [released Oct. 1, 2012]). Knauz marked the first time a panel of the NLRB decided a case involving social media; previously, all NLRB guidance in this area came from ALJ decisions or the Board’s General Counsel Memoranda. In Knauz, a sales employee had complained on his Facebook page about his employer, a BMW car dealership, posting photos and criticizing bad food the dealer offered at a sales event; he had also discussed those concerns with other coworkers. He also posted critical comments and photos about an accident during a test drive at the dealership. The employer terminated the employee for his Facebook postings and for violating the employer’s courtesy policy. That policy stated that “[e]veryone is expected to be courteous, polite and friendly to our customers, vendors and suppliers, as well as to their fellow employees,” and that “[n]o one should be disrespectful or use profanity or any other language which injures the image or reputation of the Dealership.”
The NLRB ultimately declined to decide whether the employee’s complaints about the food were protected activity under the NLRA. The ALJ below had held the food complaints were protected because the employee and his coworkers conceivably were concerned that the low-quality food offered at the sales event would deter customers from coming, thus leading to lower sales commissions for the employees. Instead, the NLRB upheld the employee’s termination, agreeing with the ALJ that the employee’s Facebook postings relating to the on-site accident were not related to any employees’ terms or conditions of employment.
Most interestingly, the NLRB decided, in a 2-1 split decision, that the employer’s rule on courtesy violated the NLRA because it could reasonably be construed by employees as prohibiting protected concerted activities, “such as employees’ protected statements—whether to coworkers, supervisors, managers, or third parties who deal with the Respondent— that object to their working conditions and seek the support of others in improving them.”
Employer Cannot Prohibit Use of Social Media During “Company Time”
On September 20, 2012, an ALJ found that an employer’s policy prohibiting the use of social media on “Company time” violated the NLRA. (EchoStar Techs. LLC, NLRB ALJ, No. 27-CA-066726, Sept. 20, 2012). This decision is consistent with recent NLRB General Counsel Memoranda (here and here), which tend to distinguish between “company time” and “work time.” Indeed, the General Counsel has explicitly approved a social media policy that directs employees to “[r]efrain from using social media while on work time or on equipment we provide.” A restriction as broad as prohibiting social media use during “company time” would encompass nonworking time, such as paid breaks, which could interfere with employees’ ability to exercise their rights to concerted activity under the NLRA.
The employer argued that the social-media prohibition was a common-sense rule designed to prevent employees from engaging in personal activities on the job—a problem that has become pervasive in the workplace, substantially affecting productivity. The employer also argued that the “Company time” prohibition was reasonable in context because it was included in a policy restricting the use of company equipment, which the employer argued it could restrict whether during working time or nonworking time. Without significant discussion, the ALJ simply ruled that the prohibition was unlawful and must be removed from the employee handbook.
What to Take Away
The NLRB law on social media policies is continuing to evolve in favor of employees. It is a delicate line to balance between (1) appropriate limitations on the use of social media, and (2) protecting employees’ rights of concerted activity under the NLRA to confer for their mutual benefit regarding the terms and conditions of employment. It seems clear, however, that broad-based bans on the use of social media during work-time, and efforts to control the nature of employees’ communications on social media as they relate to working conditions, will not be viewed favorably by the NLRB.
President Obama is today expected to sign the Hiring Incentives to Restore Employment (HIRE) Act, which in its final form passed The House of Representatives 217-201 on March 4 and the Senate 68-29 on March 17. Click here to download the final version of the HIRE Act.
Key provisions of the HIRE Act include:
- An exemption from Social Security payroll taxes for private employers for each worker hired in 2010 who previously had been unemployed for at least 60 days;
- A $1,000 income tax credit, or a credit of 6.2% of total wages paid, for private employers for each new employee hired in 2010 and retained for at least 52 weeks and claimed on the employer's 2011 income tax return;
- An extension of the small business “expensing” tax break for one year, allowing small businesses to continue writing off up to $250,000 of certain capital expenditures instead of depreciating them over time;
- A $4.6 billion Build America Bonds program, which would provide an optional direct subsidy payment in lieu of a tax credit for tax credit bonds issued for certain school and energy projects; and
- Expanded federal aid for highway programs estimated to save or create 1 million jobs.
As previously reported in the Stoel Rives World of Employment, a slightly different version of the HIRE Act passed through the Senate on February 24. While the bill was in the House, several changes were to the Act, including increased funding to the Build America Bonds program and greater flexibility to the hiring tax credit program.