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NLRB’s directive unveiled

In many ways an April 8 memorandum issued by the National Labor Relations Board’s General Counsel is a reminder to employers of new rules and developments that could greatly expand penalties and unfair labor practice charges for noncompliant handbooks that otherwise seem fine but for the new guidance.

Outlined below is: 1, a brief history on the ruling that led employers here; 2, what the memo means to employers; and 3, next steps.

The impact of the ‘Stericycle’ standard

In the NLRB’s Stericycle Inc. decision last year, the agency adopted a new legal standard for evaluating whether an employer’s work rule violates the National Labor Relations Act. The new standard assesses whether a workplace rule or policy “has a reasonable tendency to interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees who contemplate engaging in protected activity.”

In the aftermath of that decision, common employer policies have been struck down. They include those on confidentiality, moonlighting and dress code as well as prohibitions of distracting the attention of others, “wasting time” or loitering, unauthorized soliciting or collecting contributions for any purpose whatsoever during working hours, misusing or removing certain items (such as employee lists, blueprints, company records, or confidential information) from the employer’s premises without proper authorization, and making or publishing malicious statements concerning any employee, the company, or its products.

The meaning of the April 8 memo

The General Counsel’s new memo targets a broader category of cases that may not specifically name affected employees. The General Counsel instructs regional directors to: 1, identify employees affected by illegal work rules, clear any disciplinary records, and award back pay; 2, gather relevant information from employers during settlement negotiations, potentially increasing employer liability and settlement costs; and 3, request legal fees and costs for employees harmed by an unlawful contract term.

This approach could significantly increase potential liability for employers if an unlawful work rule affects their entire workforce, potentially harming their business.

Four next steps for employers

Review your work rules for potential Section 7 violations, especially all-too-common rules on confidential information and disobedience.

Seek legal counsel for questionable work rules and ensure they’re narrowly tailored or properly phrased in compliance with the law.

Train managers and human resources staff to avoid chilling employees’ Section 7 rights.

Review all other policies to ensure they are compliant with the NLRA and close the gap on potential liabilities.

The four simple steps above can greatly reduce your company’s exposure to an unwanted unfair labor practice charge or penalties handed down from the NLRB.

Stephen Scott is a partner in the Portland office of Fisher Phillips, a national firm dedicated to representing employers’ interests in all aspects of workplace law.