Employment Law Blog

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Mar 06, 2014

Use caution when dealing with workplace gossiping rules

 

Employers should tread lightly when prohibiting gossip in the workplace. That’s the latest lesson from a National Labor Relations Board administrative law judge in a ruling against a company’s no-gossip policy (Laurus Technical Institute, NLRB ALJ, Dec. 2013).

Employers should tread lightly when prohibiting gossip in the workplace. That’s the latest lesson from a National Labor Relations Board administrative law judge in a ruling against a company’s no-gossip policy (Laurus Technical Institute, NLRB ALJ, Dec. 2013).

It’s understandable that employers would want to keep a tight rein on gossip to protect against the destructive impact on employees as well as the company’s outside reputation. Nevertheless, Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) safeguards employees’ right to engage in “protected concerted activity.” The law applies equally to union and nonunion workplaces. Protected concerted activity means employees’ right to band together to communicate about their wages, hours and working conditions.

In the Laurus case, the non-union employer had a broad anti-gossiping policy. The policy prohibited discussing an employee’s personal life without that person present; discussing an employee’s professional life without their supervisor present; and sharing information which could injure an employee’s reputation. In this case, the employer was a trade school that was undergoing some staffing changes in the Admissions Department as part of an overall “house cleaning” move. The employee in question had been discussing issues of job security, among other things, with coworkers. Her actions were deemed a violation of the anti-gossiping policy, and her employment was terminated. The NLRB ruled that the policy was illegal on its face because an employee could reasonably see the rule as prohibiting protected concerted activity.

Tips: Employers have the right to prohibit harassing, abusive, or discriminatory communications by employees. Further, not all workplace complaints are considered protected concerted activity. For example, complaints involving personal preferences or about managerial style may not be protected. The problem is when policies are so broad that they could include protected activity as well as unprotected activity. For more details, check out Vigilant’s Legal Guide, “Handling Workplace Protests and Complaints” (1238) or contact your Vigilant staff representative.

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