Retail employers dismayed by employees publicly airing workplace grievances in disparaging social media posts must think twice before taking disciplinary action. On August 18, 2016, the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) confirmed the finding by Administrative Law Judge Susan A. Flynn that Chipotle’s social media policy forbidding employees from posting “incomplete” or “ inaccurate” information, or from making “disparaging, false, or misleading statements” on Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites violates Section 8(a)(1) of the National Relations Labor Act (“the Act”).
Chipotle discovered that an employee responded to a customer’s tweet thanking Chipotle for a free food offer, by tweeting back: “@ChipotleTweets, nothing is free, only cheap #labor. Crew members make only $8.50hr how much is that steak bowl really?” Then, attaching a news article describing how hourly workers at Chipotle were required to work on snow days while certain high-level employees were not, the employee tweeted his displeasure, specifically referencing Chipotle’s Communications Director: “Snow day for ‘top performers’ Chris Arnold?” Informed by his manager that Chipotle considered his tweets to be in violation of Chipotle’s social media policy, the employee removed them at Chipotle’s request. Then, several weeks later, Chipotle fired the employee after he circulated a petition about employees not receiving required breaks.
Finding the provision in Chipotle’s policy prohibiting employees from spreading “incomplete” or “inaccurate” information to be unlawful, Judge Flynn opined that: “An employer may not prohibit employee postings that are merely false or misleading. Rather, in order to lose the [NLRA]’s protection, more than a false or misleading statement by the employee is required; it must be shown that the employee had a malicious motive.” Judge Flynn also found the policy provision prohibiting “disparaging” statements to be unlawful, explaining that it “could easily encompass statements protected by Section 7 [of the NLRA]” including “the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” Although Chipotle’s social media policy contained a disclaimer that the policy “does not restrict any activity that is protected by the National Relations Labor Act, whistleblower laws, or any other privacy rights,” Judge Flynn concluded that this “sentence does not serve to cure the unlawfulness of the foregoing provisions.”
The NLRB adopted Judge Flynn’s decision that Chipotle was wrong, not only for firing the employee, but for attempting to limit his commentary on social media by its unlawfully termed social media policy. While agreeing with Judge Flynn’s reasons for finding the social media policy unlawful, the NLRB disagreed with Judge Flynn’s finding that Chipotle violated the NLRA by asking the employee to delete the tweets. In particular, while Judge Flynn opined that the employee engaged in “concerted activity” even though he did not consult with other employees before posting his tweets because “concerted activities include individual activity where individual employees seek to initiate or to induce … group action,” the NLRB disagreed, asserting, with no true explanation, that it did not find the employee’s conduct to be concerted. Agreeing that Chipotle violated the NLRA by terminating the employee after he engaged in protected concerted activity by circulating a petition regarding the Company’s break policy, the NLRB required Chipotle to, among other things, post signs acknowledging that its social media policy was illegal, and to re-instate the employee with back pay.
The message from the NLRB to retail employers is that, barring malicious misstatements, speech concerning terms and conditions of employment is often protected activity, even for employees who want to criticize their employers on Twitter and other social media websites. To avoid Chipotle’s fate, ensure that your social media policies are up to date and provide for the increasing protections afforded to employee social media activity by the NLRB.