Employers need to be on the lookout for instances of offensive employee speech, which may put them between a rock and a hard place as they navigate potential claims under either anti-discrimination laws or federal labor laws.
You have probably heard that Google terminated an employee earlier this month for saying (among other things) that gender inequality in the technology field resulted from biological differences. After James Damore (now former employee) circulated a lengthy written critique on the company’s diversity efforts, Google ended his employment. Google’s CEO sent a company-wide email announcing that Google terminated Damore because his statements violated the company’s code of conduct by “advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.”
Google’s response to the memo is not surprising. Over the last several years, the tech industry has faced increased scrutiny about gender inequality in the workforce. We have seen a handful of claims (both in and out of court) alleging sex discrimination and harassment in Silicon Valley. Ignoring for the moment the optics, workforce morale, and company culture potentially affected by Damore’s manifesto, the company acted to minimize its exposure under anti-discrimination laws. For example, if a female employee later sues Google for sex discrimination, Google can point to its hardline response as evidence that it is committed to the equal treatment of women in the workplace and does not tolerate attitudes to the contrary.
What Google may have failed to consider, however, are Damore’s potential claims under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which protects employees’ rights to act together to improve pay and working conditions.
The day he was terminated, Damore filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), apparently claiming that his manifesto was protected activity and the company was trying to silence him by threatening his employment. (The actual complaint is not yet publicly available, but Damore has spoken out about it, and the NLRB site describes the nature of the complaint as “coercive statements.”) The day after Damore filed his NLRB complaint, the Eighth Circuit agreed with another NLRB order reinstating an employee terminated for making racial slurs to a group of African-American workers. Because that employee made the slurs during a nonviolent company strike, the Eighth Circuit held that he was participating in protected collective activity. Damore will likely point to the new Eighth Circuit opinion to support his NLRB complaint.
Whether offensive speech constitutes harassment is very fact-specific, as is whether an employee’s conduct amounts to protected concerted activity under the NLRA. Employers should always address instances of unprofessional or offensive comments, but they also need to be on the lookout for potential NLRB claims if the employee’s remarks reach a larger group of people (whether in person, in writing, or via social media).