The Acting General Counsel of the NLRB is apparently rummaging through handbooks and policy statements to charge nonunion employers with unfair labor practices for enacting seemingly innocuous rules that could conceivably be read as interfering with the right of employees to engage in protected concerted activity.  And as can be seen from the Board’s recent opinion in Karl Knauz Motors, Inc., 358 NLRB No. 164 (2012), the current Board majority has apparently bought into that misguided theory.

Under existing Board law, employers violate Section 8(a)(1) of the Act by maintaining work rules or policies that “would reasonably” be construed by employees as prohibiting or chilling their right to discuss or object to the terms and conditions of their employment.  In this case, the car dealership had a seemingly innocuous and facially neutral “Courtesy” Rule in its employee handbook requiring employees to be “courteous” and “polite” to customers, suppliers and co-workers:

(b) Courtesy: Courtesy is the responsibility of every employee.  Everyone is expected to be courteous, polite and friendly to our customers, vendors and suppliers, as well as their fellow employees.  No one should be disrespectful or use profanity or any other language which injures the image or reputation of the Dealership.

The rule would reasonably appear to require employees to refrain from being disrespectful and from using language which would reflect poorly on the Dealership when interacting with customers and suppliers, or with one another in the presence of customers and suppliers.

Although the rule was not applied to discipline or discharge any employee, the Acting General Counsel nevertheless charged the employer with an unfair labor practice for maintaining the rule, and the Board majority agreed.  Citing its recent social media policy decision in Costco Wholesale Corp., the Board noted that there was no protected activity disclaimer in the handbook and held that the “Courtesy” Rule is unlawful based on the strained conclusion that the Dealership’s employees would reasonably assume that they had been disrespectful in violation of the rule if they objected to or criticized anything concerning their working conditions.  The reliance on Costco would appear to be misplaced, however, as that case involved a rule prohibiting employees from posting disparaging comments about the employer on the Internet.  In this case, the Board’s majority improperly reads the “Courtesy” Rule as if the sentence prohibiting disrespectful conduct and profanity was a stand-alone requirement as in Costco, ignoring completely the context in which that sentence is part of the overall expectation that employees be courteous to customers and one another in order to maintain the Dealership’s good reputation and image.  Context matters, however, and in this context it appears the Board will find rules to be unlawful if they “could conceivably” be read as chilling protected rights, as it strains credulity to think that employees “would reasonably” read a rule addressed to courteous behavior towards customers as interfering with their right to object to working conditions.  Because the Acting General Counsel will continue to prosecute nonunion employers for handbook policies that “could conceivably” be read as chilling protected activity, employers need to review and modify their policies to avoid facing unfair labor practice charges.