We wrote recently about the Trump Administration’s efforts to roll back the Obama-era NLRB’s workplace handbook and rule restrictions. It’s time to update you further on where that effort stands.
As a reminder, the Obama NLRB held in December 2017 in The Boeing Company case that facially-neutral employment policies and rules will now be classified into one of three categories:
- Category 1 includes policies that are legal in all cases since they can’t reasonably be interpreted as interfering with workers’ rights or because any interference is outweighed by business interests.
- Category 2 includes policies that are legal in some cases, depending on their application.
- Category 3 includes policies which are generally always unlawful.
The fact that legitimate business justifications associated with workplace rules would be given more weight when being evaluated by the NLRB was positive news for employers. What was still to be seen was how these categories would be applied to real cases.
A decision issued by an Administrative Law Judge last month gives us more insight on how the Board will apply these categories going forward. The case is Lowe’s Home Centers, LLC, Case No. 19-CA-191665 (NLRB 2018). The case involved a challenge to a provision of the company’s Code of Business Conduct and Ethics which included a section on “Confidential Information,” that stated:
Employees must maintain the confidentiality of information entrusted to them by Lowe’s or its suppliers or customers, except when disclosure is authorized by Lowe’s General Counsel and Chief Compliance Officer or disclosure is required by law, applicable governmental regulations or legal proceedings. Whenever feasible, Employees should consult with the company’s General Counsel and Chief Compliance Officer before disclosing confidential information if they believe they have a legal obligation to do so. Confidential information includes all non-public information that might be of use to competitors of the company, or harmful to Lowe’s, its suppliers or customers, if disclosed. It includes all proprietary information relating to Lowe’s business such as customer, budget, financial, credit, marketing, pricing, supply cost, personnel, medical records and salary information.
The provision’s reference to “salary information,” caused the challenge, but the company argued that its rule did not prevent employees from discussing salary information with each other (which is protected by Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act), but referred instead to situations involving a person entrusted with non-public information relating to the company, and also that its business justifications for the rule outweighed employees’ Section 7 rights.
The ALJ did not look favorably on this Code provision or the company’s arguments. Her ruling held that the “provision may be read to preclude employees from discussing their salary information with one another, as well as non-employees such as union representatives and Board agents, which the Board has found to infringe on employees’ Section 7 rights to discuss terms and conditions of their employment with others.” Further, the ALJ emphasized that “[e]mployee discussions regarding wages, the core of Section 7 rights, are ‘the grist on which concerted activity feeds,’” and that “the Board has consistently held that rules or provisions which prohibit employees from discussing wages are unlawful.”
The ALJ explained that rules prohibiting employees from discussing salary information are per se unlawful (falling in Category 3), obviating the need to even conduct a balancing test (as would relevant with Category 1 or 2). Even if a balancing test were used, the ALJ found that the adverse impact on the employees’ Section 7 rights outweighed the company’s asserted business justifications. So, the company was ordered to rescind the unlawful policy and to notify employees of the change.
The lesson for employers here is that existing policies need to be carefully reviewed and new policies scrutinized even considering the Board’s current, more employer-friendly analysis. This case shows us that something as seemingly innocuous as the definitions section of an employee policy can still cause an employer significant problems.