For the past several years, folks in the HR space have had to pay special attention to the language in their handbooks and employment policies out of fear of violating rules established by a series of decisions from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Those decisions established a tough standard for evaluating facially neutral employment policies that complied with their interpretations of labor law. Combined with an aggressive NLRB enforcement strategy, employers have understandably been on edge with respect to their workplace rules and policies.
Under that standard, the NLRB found that employers violated the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) by maintaining workplace rules that did not explicitly prohibit protected activities, were not adopted in response to such activities, and were not applied to restrict such activities, if the rules would be “reasonably construed” by an employee to prohibit the exercise of his or her NLRA right to engage in “protected, concerted activity.”
On December 14, 2017, however, the NLRB replaced that standard with a new one. In The Boeing Company, 365 NLRB No. 154 (2017), the NLRB established a new test for workplace rules and policies: when evaluating a facially neutral policy, rule or handbook provision that, when reasonably interpreted, would potentially interfere with the exercise of NLRA rights, the NLRB will evaluate two things: (i) the nature and extent of the potential impact on NLRA rights, and (ii) legitimate justifications associated with the rule.
This standard is much more favorable to employers. Many policies which would have violated the previous standard will now be considered appropriate and lawful.
Additionally, the NLRB also announced three categories of rules will be delineated to provide greater clarity and certainty to employees, employers, and unions:
- Category 1: This will include rules that the NLRB designates as lawful to maintain, either because (i) the rule, when reasonably interpreted, does not prohibit or interfere with the exercise of NLRA rights; or (ii) the potential adverse impact on protected rights is outweighed by justifications associated with the rule. (An example of a Category 1 rules is the no-camera requirement maintained by Boeing in the case.)
- Category 2: This will include rules that warrant individualized scrutiny in each case as to whether the rule would prohibit or interfere with NLRA rights, and if so, whether any adverse impact on NLRA-protected conduct is outweighed by legitimate justifications.
- Category 3: This will include rules that the NLRB will designate as unlawful to maintain because they would prohibit or limit NLRA-protected conduct, and the adverse impact on NLRA rights is not outweighed by justifications associated with the rule.
In the Boeing case, the NLRB concluded that Boeing lawfully maintained a no-camera rule that prohibited employees from using camera-enabled devices to capture images or video without a valid business need and an approved camera permit. The NLRB explained that the rule potentially affected the exercise of NLRA rights, but that the impact was comparatively slight and outweighed by important justifications, including national security concerns.
Overall, while employer policies and rules must still be evaluated to ensure compliance with the NLRA, such policies and rules will now be judged under much less stringent standards than they have been for the past several years, which is very good news indeed for employers.