Q: What is the current rule on whether an employee can use our company’s email system to distribute union material? Also, are we permitted to require employees to keep workplace investigations confidential without running afoul of the National Labor Relations Act?
A: There are actually two issues that arise from your question, and both were recently addressed by the National Labor Relations Board in its reversal of two Obama-era decisions. Essentially, employers may now beef up restrictions on their employees’ use of company-owned email and other communications systems, subject to certain exceptions. Furthermore, employers may now implement rules requiring confidentiality during the course of workplace investigations, and depending on the circumstances, even beyond the close of the investigation.
In the first case, Caesars Entertainment d/b/a/ Rio All-suites Hotel and Casino, the Board found that an employer’s right to control the use of its email systems supersedes the right of employees to use such systems for union-related communications. This decision overturns Purple Communications, Inc., a much-maligned 2014 decision in which the Board held that workplace rules prohibiting employees from using employer-owned email systems for union business were presumptively invalid. According to the current Board, Purple Communications “impermissibly discounted employers’ property rights in their IT resources while overstating the importance of those resources to Section 7 activity.”
The Caesars Entertainment dispute arose when the union, representing approximately 3,000 employees at a Las Vegas hotel and casino, filed a charge alleging that the employer’s handbook rules violated Purple Communications by prohibiting employees from using the employer’s email system to “send chain letters or other forms of non-business information,” which presumably included union-related emails and other communications. After an administrative law judge rejected the employer’s handbook rule under the Purple standard, the Board issued a call for the parties and interested amici to address several questions, including whether Purple should be overturned, and if so, what standard should replace it. The Board suggested the possibility of returning to the standard introduced in 2007 in Register Guard, where the Board held that employees have no statutory right to use employer equipment.
In a sense, the Board’s rationale for returning to the Register Guard standard is a product of the changes to society at large brought on by technology. As the Board in Caesars explained, employees have other options for union-related communications, given that “in modern workplaces employees also have access to smartphones, personal email accounts, and social media, which provide additional avenues of communication, including for Section 7–related purposes.” As such, the Board found “no basis for concluding that a prohibition on the use of an employer’s email system for non-work purposes in the typical work-place creates an ‘unreasonable impediment’” to employee Section 7 rights. However, the Board recognized that, in certain circumstances, an employer’s email system might be the only viable means of communication among employees. In that case, “an employer’s property rights may be required to yield in such circumstances to ensure that employees have adequate avenues of communication.” The Board declined to clarify the scope of this exception, instead leaving it “to be fleshed out on a case-by-case basis.”
In another case affecting employee Section 7 rights, Apogee Retail LLC, the Board held that a workplace rule requiring employees to maintain confidentiality in the context of an ongoing workplace investigation is presumptively lawful. After the Board’s 2015 decision in Banner Estrella Medical Center, employers were obligated to make a case-by-case determination about whether imposing a particular confidentiality rule during an internal investigation would infringe upon an employee’s Section 7 rights. Reversing that decision, the Apogee Retail Board explained that such confidentiality rules would now be subject to the analysis introduced by the Board in 2017 in Boeing Co., which provided a new standard for determining whether the maintenance of a facially neutral workplace rule is unlawful.
Under Boeing, when analyzing a facially neutral rule that might interfere with the exercise of employee Section 7 rights, the Board considers (1) the nature and extent of the potential impact of the rule on NLRA rights, and (2) the employer’s legitimate justifications for deploying the rule. Following this analysis, the Board places the rule in question in one of three categories—either lawful or unlawful, or somewhere in between. For those rules that present a close call, the Board balances the rule’s effect on employee rights with the employer’s business justifications for the rule.
In Apogee Retail, the workplace rule in question required employees who reported misconduct or otherwise participated in an investigation of such misconduct to maintain confidentiality with respect to the investigation. Employees were warned that violations of the rule could result in disciplinary action. In analyzing the rule, the Board first determined that it, “when reasonably interpreted, would potentially interfere with employees’ exercise of their Section 7 rights” to discuss employee discipline in the workplace “where doing so is not mere griping but rather looks towards group action.” However, when balancing the potential impact on Section 7 rights with the employer’s business justifications, the Board found the employer’s interests outweighed the interests of its employees. Specifically, the employer’s interest in preventing theft and responding quickly to misconduct, as well as in maintaining employee privacy and the integrity of its investigations, benefitted both employers and employees and therefore carried the day.
In addition to finding that it is presumptively lawful for an employer to impose a confidentiality rule during the course of an ongoing investigation, the Board in Apogee Retail took the further step of holding that an employer can impose confidentiality even after an investigation is complete without violating labor laws if its legitimate reasons for requiring confidentiality outweigh the impact on an employee’s Section 7 rights. In other words, rules that extend confidentiality beyond the close of an investigation will be subject to the Boeing analysis.
These two decisions represent a distinct shift away from the Obama-era Board’s positions on these issues. Following Purple Communications, many employers scrambled to rewrite their policies regarding employee email use. Now, after Caesars Entertainment, employers can implement rules that prohibit employees from engaging in any non-work-related use of company technology, unless the use of an employer’s communication systems is the only reasonable means for employees to communicate about union matters. Employers may now require confidentiality during ongoing investigations, although rules that extend confidentiality beyond the close of the investigation will be scrutinized on a case-by-case basis.
In any event, while the more-relaxed standards announced in these two decisions will provide some relief for employers, given the politically mercurial nature of the NLRB, employers may want to file away their Purple and Banner Estrella-compliant policies for future use. As Caesars Entertainment and Apogee Retail illustrate, the Board’s views on any given issue are subject to change with the political winds. As always, it is prudent to consult with a qualified attorney before changing any workplace rules that could impact employee rights under the National Labor Relations Act.