Many employers have dress codes that regulate what employees can wear, particularly employees who have contact with customers, clients, patients and business partners, in order to convey the organization’s image, brand, values and mission.  The National Labor Relations Board issued a decision striking down an employer’s discipline of an employee for wearing a t-shirt that ridiculed its employee recognition program.  On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit took the Board to  task for its ruling.  According to the Court, the Board held this employer to a higher standard than it imposed on employers in the past and the Board provided no justification for the new standard.  Medco Health Solutions of Las Vegas, Inc., v. NLRB, No. 11-1282 (D.C. Cir. Dec. 14, 2012)

To encourage excellent performance by employees, the employer introduced an employee recognition program—the WOW program. The program did not offer monetary rewards nor did they influence promotions or wage increases. The employer believed the program showed its commitment to excellence, and customers were regularly shown the wall of recognition when they came to the employer’s facility.

One day an employee wore a t-shirt to work that had the union logo on the front and on the back it read: “I don’t need a WOW to do my job.” That same day representatives of a customer were scheduled to tour the facility and the employee was instructed to remove the “insulting” t-shirt. The employee was told that if he did not feel he could support the WOW program, “there are plenty of jobs out there.” The employee changed shirts before the customers arrived, and he did not wear the t-shirt again.

The union filed an unfair labor practice charge alleging that the employer’s dress code policy was too broad and that instructing the employee not to wear the t-shirt violated the National Labor Relations Act.

The Board ruled that the employee had the right to wear the t-shirt and the employer’s ban on “phrases, words, statements, pictures, cartoons or drawings that are confrontational, slanderous, insulting or provocative” was too broad and interfered with employee rights to engage in protected concerted activity, which includes the right to criticize work rules and working conditions.

The Court of Appeals disagreed.  The Court was troubled by the fact that in the past the Board upheld discipline of union employees at a grocery store for wearing shirts that read “Don’t Cheat About the Meat!” or bagel shop employees’ shirts that stated “If its not Union, its not Kosher.” (grammatical error was in the slogan).  In neither case did the employer provide, nor did the Board require, evidence that the slogan “reasonably raised the genuine possibility of harm to the customer relationship.”  In the Court’s view, the Board failed to offer any explanation as to why the slogan about the WOW program was different from these other two cases.

The Court noted that Board decisions are entitled to deference and that the Board has a “fund of knowledge and expertise all its own.”  But the Court further observed that “this expertise is surely not at its peak in the realm of employer-customer relations.”  In chastising the Board for its ban on “provocative and confrontational” slogans worn by an employee in a workplace visited by customers, the Court stated that “such expressions are seldom found in civil and decent places of employment.”  The Court sent the case back to the Board to reconsider its ruling in light of the flaws cited by the Court.

On remand, the Board may be able to explain to the Court’s satisfaction why it has ignored its own prior rulings on provocative and confrontational anti-employer statements on clothing worn at work.  The Court’s opinion conveys skepticism that the Board will be able to do so.  In the meantime, employers should recognize that  the Board is likely to continue to substantially limit an employer’s ability to prohibit employees from wearing clothing to work with provocative or confrontational messages that could harm customer or client relationships.