Information contained in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.
Many employers include in their electronic resources policy a blanket prohibition on “engaging in any political activity.” A recent Guideline Memorandum issued by the NLRB’s General Counsel creates a minefield of potential unfair labor practices for employers who enforce this commonplace ban, especially as the 2008 presidential campaign heads towards its climax.
According to the GC’s Guideline, employees’ political advocacy can, in some circumstances, constitute “concerted activity” protected by the NLRA. The test is two-fold: First, is there “a direct nexus between the specific issue that is the subject of the advocacy and a specifically identified employment concern of the participating employees.” Put simply, is the political advocacy related to the terms or conditions of employment. Second, has the employee engaged in this protected political advocacy without violating "restrictions imposed by lawful and neutrally applied work rules." In other words, employers can discipline employees who engage in protected political advocacy as long as the rule used to justify the discipline is legal and is applied in a non-discriminatory manner. There’s the rub for employers.
Last December, the NLRB ruled that employers can implement an e-mail policy whose provisions incidentally prohibit union-related activity. An employer can, for example, promulgate a policy that bans all non-business use of its e-mail system or that bans all solicitations for membership organizations. While such policies effectively ban use of the corporate e-mail system for union-related activities, that result is only incidental to the broader ban directed at both non-union and union activities. Thus, an e-mail policy that bans all political activity using the corporate e-mail system is lawful, even though some of the banned activity may now, according to the GC’s Guideline, be protected concerted activity.
The challenge for employers is ensuring that this lawful policy is “neutrally applied.” During the presidential debate season, an employer can expect to see e-mail cheering and lambasting the candidates, encouraging co-workers to register for a particular party, and attacking or advocating planks in party platforms. If such e-mail traffic goes unpunished even though it violates the company’s ban on political activity over the corporate e-mail network, the trap may be laid for a successful unfair labor practice charge when months later employees are punished for exchanging e-mail about joining in a union-organized protest over a new work-related law advocated by the new President — whoever that might be.
For further analysis on the GC's Guidelines, please see Littler ASAP: Can a Bumper Sticker Get You Bumped? NLRB's General Counsel Issues Guidelines on Political Advocacy by Frank W. Buck and Richard L. Sloane.