A recent case involving Whole Foods demonstrates the ever-increasing importance to the National Labor and Relations Board of protecting Section 7 concerted activity under the National Labor Relations Act. Section 7 protects activities of employees when exercising their rights under the National Labor Relations Act to collective action. Both unionized and non-unionized employees are protected under Section 7.
Whole Foods had in its employee handbook a rather innocuous-sounding prohibition against employees recording conversations, phone calls, images or company meetings without a prior approval from management and without the consent of all the parties to the conversation. The reasons given to Whole Foods for this policy was to encourage “open atmosphere” and “employee trust” – which are certainly understandable reasons. The NLRB saw it differently. Whole Foods Market, Inc., 363 NLRB No. 87, 2015 NLRB Lexis 949 (Dec. 24, 2015).
What the NLRB saw was a blanket prohibition with “broad and unqualified language” that could have a chilling effect upon employees’ exercise of their Section 7 activities to act in concert to protect or pursue collective bargaining rights. In the eyes of the NLRB, the prohibitions were worded broadly enough to include protected concerted activities such as recording images and picketing, documenting unsafe working conditions and recording evidence for later use in administration or judicial proceedings. The NLRB found there to be a “chilling” effect in such broad language and struck the handbook provisions.
Takeaway: Employers need to be increasingly careful about provisions in their handbooks and policies that effect employees’ right to communicate among each and now to record such conversations. Even with the best of intentions, such blanket prohibitions could have a chilling effect on the employees’ right to engage in concerted activities to protect their NLRA-guaranteed right to engage in collective action. Employers should seek good legal counsel to refine employee communication policies so that they can meet their legitimate objectives without creating a chilling effect on Section 7 rights.