Employee Handbooks Under Scrutiny

OK, pop quiz: What’s the difference between these two employee-handbook policies?

  1. “Be respectful to the company, other employees, customers, partners, and competitors.”
  2. “Each employee is expected to work in a cooperative manner with management/supervision, co-workers, customers and vendors.”

One, according to the National Labor Relations Board, is legal. The other is not. (I’ll tell you which was which in a minute.)

Don’t fret if you have trouble seeing the difference. That’s why we have lawyers. And that’s why there’s plenty of work for them as the ThinkstockPhotos-517631808NLRB cracks down on employee-handbook language — including provisions that once were standard — that it says is too broad.

In a series of rulings the agency has told companies to revise policies that infringe on rights of workers — unionized or not — to talk to each other about the company in person or through social media.

“Employers are really waking up to this,” says Lauri F. Rasnick, a member of the firm at Epstein Becker Green of New York. “For a long time, nonunionized employers didn’t give a lot of thought to NLRB decisions.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce contends the effort is part of an anti-employer crusade. In a highly critical December report titled “Theater of the Absurd: The NLRB Takes on the Employee Handbook,” the trade group argues that the agency “has undertaken a campaign to outlaw heretofore uncontroversial rules found in employee handbooks and in employers’ social media policies.”

Worse, according to the chamber: the NLRB’s guidance to employers often is contradictory, creating “a morass of confusion that leaves employers wondering just how they are to exercise effective control over their workplaces.”

Rasnick agrees. “I do think that’s part of the challenge for employers,” she says, noting that NLRB decisions aren’t always consistent. And they are continuing to evolve, with confidentiality provisions attracting more scrutiny in recent rulings, she says.

The latest headline came this month after an administrative law judge ruled that Quicken Loans and five related companies had illegal rules in its employee handbook, which it calls “The Big Book.” (Despite the Quicken name, the companies are not owned by software company Intuit; they’re led by Dan Gilbert, majority owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers.)

To the untutored eye, many of the rules seem pretty standard stuff. An example: “Think before you Tweet. Or post, comment or pin. What you share can live forever. If it doesn’t belong on the front page of The New York Times, don’t put it online.”

The problem with this rule, wrote judge David I. Goldman in his April 7 ruling:  Although the policy doesn’t tell workers they can’t bad-mouth the company online, “an employee considering this suggestion would reasonably feel chilled by this rule from expressing negative (but protected) information” about the employer.

The companies are appealing the decision to the full board. But there’s little indication that the NLRB is letting up on the effort.

Back to our pop quiz. Of those two employee-handbook policies, the first (“be respectful”) is illegal, according to the NLRB’s general counsel. The second (“work in a cooperative manner”) is OK.

The problem is in telling workers they must be “respectful” to management, as well as customers and others, wrote Richard F. Griffin Jr. in a memo last year. An employee might reasonably see that as a ban on complaining about the company, he wrote.

The second example is legal, Griffin wrote. “Employees would reasonably understand that it is stating the employer’s legitimate expectation that employees work together in an atmosphere of civility.”