Because the incumbent President appoints members of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the NLRB’s decisions often reflect the policy choices of that President’s political party. Generally, when a Democrat holds office, the NLRB’s decisions are more employee and union-friendly, and when a Republican holds office, the NLRB’s decisions are more management-friendly. An issue that the NLRB has consistently gone back and forth on, depending on the incumbent President, is the standard for evaluating employee handbooks and establishing what rules and policies are acceptable under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Under Section 7 of the NLRA, employees have rights of organization and collective bargaining, including the right to discuss wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment.
From 2004 to 2017, under the Lutheran Heritage standard, the NLRB took the position that, if an employee could reasonably construe a rule or policy to prohibit activities protected by Section 7, that the rule or policy violated Section 7. This guidance emphasized that employer’s rules and policies needed to be narrowly tailored to avoid violating Section 7. Then, in 2017, the NLRB decided Boeing, which held that a facially neutral work policy was lawful when the potential adverse impact on an employee’s exercise of protected rights was outweighed by justifications associated with the policy.
Now, the NLRB has changed the standard back to something that “builds on and revises” the Lutheran Heritage standard. On August 2, the NLRB set an employee and union-friendly standard for rules and policies in its Stericycle Inc. ruling. Under the new standard, a workplace rule or policy is presumptively unlawful if an employee would reasonably interpret the rule “to chill employees from exercising their Section 7 rights.” These rights include discussing wages and terms of employment with coworkers, appealing to the public about working conditions, organizing to improve working conditions, and supporting or forming a union. That presumption of unlawfulness may be rebutted by the employer “by proving that the rule advances a legitimate and substantial business interest and that the employer is unable to advance that interest with a more narrowly tailored rule.” However, this is likely to be a high burden for employers to meet.
Rules and policies most at risk of being interpreted as chilling an employee’s ability to exercise his or her Section 7 rights include those regarding the following issues: social media, audio and video recording, cell phone use, personal conduct, conflicts of interest, and confidentiality of harassment complaints and investigations. It is important to note that facially neutral rules may be found unlawful and that the employer’s intent in creating the rule is immaterial; all rules are viewed through the employees’ lens and what they could reasonably interpret.
Another important aspect of the new standard is that the NLRB decided that it is to be applied retroactively, meaning it not only applies to workplace policies going forward but also workplace policies already in existence. Therefore, it is crucial that employers reevaluate their current employee handbooks and other workplace rules and policies to ensure that they do not violate the standard set forth in Stericycle. Because the NLRA applies to non-union companies, all employers should be aware of the new standard and ensure that their handbooks and policies comply with the Stericycle decision.