As the economy grows, job opportunities for employees increase. That in turn forces employers to find innovative ways to attract and maintain good employees. In efforts to maintain a solid workforce, employers often develop employee policies to set boundaries for employees’ behavior while at work. These policies are commonly compiled in an employee handbook and are given to employees at the beginning of the employment relationship. However, with the increased scrutiny into employee handbooks, employers would be wise to understand what they may and may not include in their employee handbooks. Unfortunately, many employers are guilty of creating an unhealthy, sometimes unlawful, work environment. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), an independent federal agency in place to safeguard employees’ rights, recently called out one major offender: T-Mobile. The NLRB upheld the National Labor Relations Act and invalidated numerous clauses of T-Mobile’s employee handbook. Yet T-Mobile’s case is not isolated; it has and will continue to create a ripple affect across the nation.
Like many companies, T-Mobile required its 50,000 employees to review and acknowledge they have reviewed an employee handbook upon hire. T-Mobile’s handbook, however, required employees to “maintain a positive work environment by communicating in a manner that is conducive to effective working relationships.” It seems harmless to any new-hire who’s absent-mindedly signing on the dotted line. This provision, however, is actually illegal. The NLRB held that not only was this statement intentionally vague, but it also stripped employees of their Section 7 rights, to discuss the terms and conditions of their employment. Put simply, T-Mobile hoped to end all controversial conversations but had no legal right to do so, according to the National Labor Relations Act. Union organizing and labor disputes undoubtedly create controversy, and T-Mobile’s threatening employees with the handbook did not stand. This employee requirement was not their only violation of the National Labor Relations Act.
T-Mobile employees were also banned from recording “people or confidential information using cameras, camera phones/devices, or recording devices.” While T-Mobile argued that this rule was imperative to protecting trade secrets and eliminating workplace harassment, the NLRB disagreed. Again, the Board cited employees’ Section 7 rights, stating there was no distinction between recordings protected by this Section and those not protected. Therefore, the requirement was invalidated.
Beyond these two violations of the National Labor Relations Act, the NLRB cited 9 more, including:
- Preventing disclosure of the employee handbook to third parties without T-Mobile’s consent;
- Forcing employees to maintain confidentiality regarding internal investigations such as complainants, subjects, or witnesses;
- Directing employees who feel they have not been paid all wages or pay owed to them, believe that an improper deduction was made from their salary, or feel they have been required to miss meal or rest periods to contact a manager, an HR business partner, or the company’s “integrity line”;
- Barring employees from making comments to media;
- Preventing employees’ right to communication or company information when it could be considered disruptive, offensive, or harmful to morale;
- Requiring employees to sign a restrictive covenant and confidentiality agreement that classifies employee wage and salary information as confidential and proprietary information not subject to disclosure;
- Prohibiting employees from disclosing employee addresses, telephone numbers, and contact information and also prohibiting employees from accessing such information without a business need to do so and without prior authorization or consent;
- Prohibiting employees from making speech about the company, its clients, or its employees that could be considered negative; and
- Requiring employees to sign a handbook that contains numerous violations, and requiring employees to report coworkers who are in violation of the handbook.
The NLRB stated that all of these handbook requirements would “reasonably construe the rule to restrict potentially controversial or contentious communications and discussions.” T-Mobile was therefore restricting open communication between its employees.
T-Mobile is not the only company creating illegal employee handbooks. After repeated complaints about T-Mobile’s labor rules, this ruling shines a light on nationwide management efforts to suppress workers’ organizing activity as well as a history of illegal corporate policy. With this case, the NLRB has shown that it plans to make corporate policy a priority. Companies should carefully read this decision and recognize T-Mobile’s mistakes in verbiage. Employers should reevaluate employees’ rights to discuss things such as salary, company disputes, and employee information. The largest takeaway from the T-Mobile ruling is that companies should update their handbooks, possibly with outside help from an attorney familiar with the National Labor Relations Act.
If you are an employee who believes your workplace is violating the National Labor Relations Act or you are an employer looking for help writing a handbook that is in compliance with the National Labor Relations Act, contact a licensed attorney at Goosmann Law Firm to help you navigate the process. No matter your role in the company, the last thing you want is an unhealthy work environment.