The National Labor Relations Act protects the rights of employees to act together to address conditions at work, with or without a union. This protection extends to certain work-related conversations conducted on social media, such as Facebook and Twitter.
In 2010, the National Labor Relations Board, an independent federal agency that enforces the Act, began receiving charges in its regional offices related to employer social media policies and to specific instances of discipline for Facebook postings. Following investigations, the agency found reasonable cause to believe that some policies and disciplinary actions violated federal labor law, and the NLRB Office of General Counsel issued complaints against employers alleging unlawful conduct. In other cases, investigations found that the communications were not protected and so disciplinary actions did not violate the Act.
General Counsel memos
To ensure consistent enforcement actions, and in response to requests from employers for guidance in this developing area, Acting General Counsel Lafe Solomon released three memos in 2011 and 2012 detailing the results of investigations in dozens of social media cases.
The first report, issued on August 18, 2011, described 14 cases. In four cases involving employees’ use of Facebook, the Office of General Counsel found that the employees were engaged in "protected concerted activity" because they were discussing terms and conditions of employment with fellow employees. In five other cases involving Facebook or Twitter posts, the activity was found to be unprotected. In one case, it was determined that a union engaged in unlawful coercive conduct when it videotaped interviews with employees at a nonunion jobsite about their immigration status and posted an edited version on YouTube and the Local Union’s Facebook page. In five cases, some provisions of employers’ social media policies were found to be overly-broad. A final case involved an employer’s lawful policy restricting its employees’ contact with the media.
The second report, issued Jan 25, 2012, also looked at 14 cases, half of which involved questions about employer policies. Five of those policies were found to be unlawfully broad, one was lawful, and one was found to be lawful after it was revised. The remaining cases involved discharges of employees after they posted comments to Facebook. Several discharges were found to be unlawful because they flowed from unlawful policies. But in one case, the discharge was upheld despite an unlawful policy because the employee’s posting was not work-related. The report underscored two main points regarding the NLRB and social media:
- Employer policies should not be so sweeping that they prohibit the kinds of activity protected by federal labor law, such as the discussion of wages or working conditions among employees.
- An employee’s comments on social media are generally not protected if they are mere gripes not made in relation to group activity among employees.
The third report, issued May 30, 2012, examined seven employer policies governing the use of social media by employees. In six cases, the General Counsel’s office found some provisions of the employer’s social media policy to be lawful and others to be unlawful. In the seventh case, the entire policy was found to be lawful. Provisions were found to be unlawful when they interfered with the rights of employees under the National Labor Relations Act, such as the right to discuss wages and working conditions with co-workers.
Some of the early social media cases were settled by agreement between the parties. Others proceeded to trial before the agency’s Administrative Law Judges. Several parties then appealed those decisions to the Board in Washington D.C.
In the fall of 2012, the Board began to issue decisions in cases involving discipline for social media postings. Board decisions are significant because they establish precedent in novel cases such as these.
In the first such decision, issued on September 28, 2012, the Board found that the firing of a BMW salesman for photos and comments posted to his Facebook page did not violate federal labor law. The question came down to whether the salesman was fired exclusively for posting photos of an embarrassing accident at an adjacent Land Rover dealership, which did not involve fellow employees, or for posting mocking comments and photos with co-workers about serving hot dogs at a luxury BMW car event. Both sets of photos were posted to Facebook on the same day; a week later, the salesman was fired. The Board agreed with the Administrative Law Judge that the salesman was fired solely for the photos he posted of a Land Rover incident, which was not concerted activity and so was not protected.
In the second decision, issued December 14, 2012, the Board found that it was unlawful for a non-profit organization to fire five employees who participated in Facebook postings about a coworker who intended to complain to management about their work performance. In its analysis, the Board majority applied settled Board law to social media and found that the Facebook conversation was concerted activity and was protected by the National Labor Relations Act.