Facebook Firings and Social Media A Top Priority for NLRB Enforcement

Last August the National Labor Relations Board Acting General Counsel issued a report detailing the outcome of investigations into 14 cases involving employee use of social media and social media policies. 

A second report issued January 24 on the same subject underscores that social media remains a top NLRB enforcement priority.   In the preface of this most recent report, acting General Counsel Lafe Solomon writes that, “ these issues and their continued treatment by the NLRB continue to be a 'hot topic' among practitioners, human resource professionals, the media, and the public."

The case summaries contained in the report deal primarily with two subjects: 1) whether an employer’s social media policy is overly broad, in that it subjects employees to adverse action for activity that is protected by the NLRA; and 2) whether a particular termination of an employee because of social media postings violates an employee’s right to engage in protected and concerted activity.    I won't go into detail here, but can only echo Jon Hyman when he describes the NLRB's latest foray into social media as "a mess".  

Although it has been stated many times, it bears repeating because it is often forgotten: all employers, not just those with a unionized work force, are subject to the jurisdiction of the NLRB.    An employee’s involvement in social media adds one more area of inquiry before discipline or discharge of an employee.   Even though there are no lawsuits in court or jury trials for NLRA violations, being subject to a NLRB investigation is no picnic. It takes time, energy, and money to respond to these investigations. If your case goes to a hearing, potential remedies include reinstatement of the terminated employee, with back pay, and continued NLRB involvement in policing your employment policies.  

Unfortunately for employers, the social media enforcement is one of the ways the NLRB is trying to remain relevant in the face of long standing and continued declines in private sector union activity

Social Networking 101: What Does It Mean for Employers?

Several commentators have identified the proliferation of social networking as one of most important new developments/challenges/obstacles that employers faced in 2009, and will continue to deal with in the foreseeable future.

Despite all the discussion in blogs and other places about this phenomenon, for those who do not spend lots of time in this arena,  there is not a clear understanding of what social networking really is, and what are the benefits and potential drawbacks for employers.

There are hundreds of sites and posts containing information and opinions about social networking.  But, for those who want to get started with some basic information, I commend you to the following sites:

First, is "Social Networking Policies: Best Practices for Companies", published in The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel.   This article answers basic questions such as, "what is social networking?", what are the benefits and risks?; are there any best practices? 

Second, is "The 3 Principles of Social Media: How to be a good online citizen, in the Delaware Employment Law Blog.   This post provides a good discussion of the purposes of social media and how it can be used effectively.

Third, is an overview of recent Federal Trade Commission regulations concerning the use of endorsement in advertising, and how those regulations could cause potential liability for companies whose employees use social networking.

 

Weekly Web Roundup: November 6, 2009

Thanks to Molly DiBianca of the Delaware Employment Law Blog for including us in the 2009 list of Top Employment Law Blogs.  One of the things I have most enjoyed since launching this blog last April is the collegiality among bloggers and the willingness to share ideas and information. 

Always a good source of practical information, the HR Daily Advisor had two posts this week  dealing with employee's abuse of FMLA leave.   The first addressed the abuse of intermittent leave, and the second tackled the problem of "pattern absences" (such as taking leave on Mondays or Fridays). 

Jon Hyman at Ohio Employer's Law Blog discusses an interview with Phillies' starter Cole Hamels after game 3 of the World Series.   Media reports of the interview contained a quote from Hamels that made it appear he had given up on the Series after his poor game 3 performance.   When considered in the context of the entire interview, however, it was clear Hamels was looking forward to the opportunity to redeem himself in game 7 (alas, a game which never was played).    The lesson for employers: be careful what you say and how you say it, because it is easy to take words out of context, especially for cross-examining lawyers. 

Megan Erickson of the Social Networking Law Blog has two recent posts (here and here) on factors employers should consider before drafting a social networking policy.   With the explosion in social networking over the past year, this has become a hot topic for employers.   See our related posts on this subject here and here.

H1N1 seems to have subsided among school age children in the local area, but now is hitting more adults.   The Washington D.C. Employment Law Update reports that two members of the House of Representatives have introduced a bill that would permit employees five paid sick days if they contract H1N1.  The Emergency Influenza Containment Act would apply to employers with fifteen or more employees.  It would permit both full and part time employees to be paid if sent home by their employer because of the flu. 

Finally, are employers under siege by the EEOC?  This post on Workplace Prof Blog reports on a human resources meeting in Detroit where many attendees reported facing EEOC charges for the first time.   The EEOC denies it is cracking down.   However, there is little doubt that charge statistics are up, and the EEOC's own press releases report the filing of substantially more lawsuits now as compared to one year ago. 

Weekly Web Roundup: October 16, 2009

Wage and hour collective actions remain active in Iowa.  A Judge in Clinton County just approved a collective action settlement in which Wal-Mart agreed to pay $11 million to settle claims that it failed to pay overtime, properly account for breaks, and altered time records.   Employees and former employees who worked for Wal-Mart in Clinton between 1999-2009 will receive between $25-300 each. 

Flu season is officially underway, and the H1N1 virus has been back in the headlines.  Ogletree Deakins has published an informative Question and Answer document concerning an employer's rights and obligations in dealing with employees who have the H1N1 virus.    In addition, the EEOC recently published a technical advisory entitled "Pandemic Preparedness in the Workplace and the Americans with Disabilities Act."

Also from the EEOC, the Agency released on October 6 an informal opinion letter concerning employee health risk assessments.   The letter, authored by EEOC assistant legal counsel Peggy Mastroianni, takes the position that requiring employees to answer personal health questions as a condition of receiving an employer provided health reimbursement expense benefit violates the ADA.  Although an informal opinion letter is not binding, it provides insight into how the Agency evaluates these issues.   For more analysis see this post at the Washington D.C. Employment Law Update.

Are you a lawyer who regularly uses motions for summary judgment in defending employment claims?  Before you file your next one, check out this post at Workplace Prof Blog.  Lawyers for United Airlines filed a motion for summary judgment in a race discrimination suit pending in California state court.  The Court noted the motion sought "adjudication of 44 issues, most of which were not proper subjects of adjudication.  Defendants’ separate statement was 196 pages long, setting forth hundreds of facts, many of them not material—as defendants’ own papers conceded.  And the moving papers concluded with a request for judicial notice of 174 pages.  All told, defendants’ moving papers were 1056 pages."   Once the plaintiff's resistance and the defendant's reply were considered, 5,415 pages of material were presented to the trial judge. The Appellate Court characterized this as  "what may well be the most oppressive motion ever presented to a superior court ".   

In reversing the trial court's ruling granting summary judgment, the Court spared no criticism of the trial judge.   The reason for the reversal: "what apparently happened is that the trial court did not read all the papers."   However, in the end, the Court gave the trial judge a break: "While not reading the papers cannot be condoned, it can perhaps be understood, as we hesitate to speculate how long it would take a trial court to meaningfully digest over 2200 pages of separate statements, analyze and rule on 764 objections set out in 325 pages, review it all in light of the applicable law, and then write a proper order."

The Court concluded with an admonition we all should heed the next time we file one of these motions: "The incredible volume of material here simply has no place in a system where overburdened trial courts labor long and hard."

Finally, Molly DiBianca at the Delaware Employment Law Blog reports on a survey of employers concerning their use of social networking media as part of applicant screening.    45% of respondents reported using social networking for background checks, with 35% of those having rejected a candidate for what they found there.   What will disqualify a potential employee?  Among other things, provocative photos or information; depiction of drinking or drug use; lying about your background or qualifications; or discriminatory comments.

 

Weekly Web Roundup: October 2, 2009

More signs this week that the federal government is ramping up enforcement of employment laws.  The Department of Justice Civil Rights Division is seeking a $22 million budget increase for 2010, and is seeking to hire 50 new attorneys.   Law Memo Employment Law Blog reports that the EEOC has been very active recently in filing lawsuits.   The Agency  filed 32 lawsuits against employers during one seven day period in September.  Add to that 13 new lawsuits filed or announced on September 29 alone.   The Department of Labor is in the process of hiring 250 new investigators to look for wage and hour violations, particularly in the areas of overtime requirements, minimum wage, and employee breaks.   If you have not done so already, now would be a good time to conduct an audit of your employment practices and procedures. 

This post on HR Daily Advisor offers practical advice on how to avoid retaliation claims.  The first rule: don't let managers or supervisors take adverse action against employees who have complained without first checking with HR.

Washington DC Employment Law Update reports that Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D, VT) announced his committee is going to hold a hearing to investigate whether the Supreme Court has been misinterpreting laws designed to protect workers from discrimination.  On the witness list, Jack Gross, the plaintiff from Des Moines in the case Gross v. FBL Financial Services, Inc.  (See our related post on this subject here, as well as this one from Workplace Prof Blog).   Gross held that an age discrimination plaintiff must prove that age was the "but-for" reason for the adverse employment action; in other words, the employment action would not have been taken "but-for" the employee's age.  Before Gross, most courts required the plaintiff to prove only that age was "a motivating factor".   Amending the ADEA to lower the burden of proof for employees may be added to Congress' list of pending employment legislation.

Are lawyers giving bad advice about the impact of new technology in the workplace?   In this post on the Fistful of Talent blog, Kris Dunn complains that lawyers too often advise clients only about the perils of social networking and other cutting edge communication tools.  She contends this type of legal advice only scares HR professionals away from modern technology, rather than empowering them to use it effectively.   Attorney Anthony Zaller of California Employment Law Report  proposes this solution: if you want practical legal advice about social networking technology, make sure your employment lawyer uses Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter,  or at least uses a Blackberry or iPhone.   I'm not sure a lawyer's own use of social networking technology will allow them to give better advice on the subject;  but, the point is well taken that clients need solutions to the legal issues this technology presents, not merely warnings about the inevitable lawsuits.  

Next Friday (October 9) I will be presenting a talk entitled "the Brave New World of Employment Law: What's New in 2009 and What to Expect in the Year Ahead" at the 3rd Annual American Corporate Counsel Association (Iowa Chapter) Annual Seminar in Iowa City.  This has become a marquee event for corporate counsel in Iowa, and I look forward to seeing many of you there.

Social Networking and Background Checks

A post in today's HR Daily Advisor poses the question whether an employer is better or worse off using internet social networking sites as a means of performing background checks on  prospective employees.    On one hand, the internet is an inexpensive and easy way of getting information about a person's background and character.  Given the risks of terminating employees, most companies would rather have such information before a person is hired in the first place.   Moreover, in the event the employee commits some act leading to a lawsuit against the company, the failure to utilize these easy sources of information could subject an employer to a claim of negligent hire.

On the other hand, there may be information about a person on the internet that is either not directly related to the job or is impermissible to consider when making a hiring decision.  An employer might learn information about the employee's age, religion, union affiliation, or other activity that cannot be considered.   Moreover, there is no guarantee the information on the internet is completely accurate. Finally, the employee's right to privacy should be considered.

Whether the internet is used in the first place should be based upon the importance of having the information about the prospective employee.   Once the decision has been made, the employer should be cautious to rely only upon permissible information, and utilize sources where there is not a high expectation of privacy. 

For other posts on the impact of social networking on employers, see the following:

Linked In and Lawsuits-Should You Be Concerned?

Text Harassment?

Employers and Social Networking--Contained in Mid Summer Employment Law Update

Are Social NetWorking Sites Private?

 

 

LinkedIn and Lawsuits--Should You Be Concerned?

There is an interesting debate occurring in the legal blogosphere concerning LinkedIn, a popular business social networking site.   It started with an article a couple of weeks ago in the National Law Journal, where management side lawyers were quoted giving warnings about the dangers of  using LinkedIn to provide recommendations to current or former employees.   The concern is that a terminated employee may use favorable recommendations on LinkedIn as evidence that the employer's stated reason for termination--poor performance--is merely a pretext for discrimination, retaliation, or harassment.

Two posts appearing yesterday take an opposing view.   Daniel Schwartz (Connecticut Employment Law Blog) and Molly DiBianca (Delaware Employment Law Blog) downplay the danger to employers of LinkedIn recommendations.  Dan contends the warnings of management side lawyers are overblown, while Molly argues that news stories such as appeared in the National Law Journal are simply propaganda.

With all due respect to my colleagues in Connecticut and Delaware, in my judgment, employers should be concerned about their managers communicating about an employee on LinkedIn.  It's easy to argue in the abstract that statements on social networking sites are no big deal, but as a practical matter, any communications concerning employee performance, regardless of the media, are potential evidence in a lawsuit.  The unfortunate reality is that many people, including managers or supervisors who probably should know better, tend to be careless when communicating through electronic media, whether that media is text messaging, e-mail, or social networking sites.   Employee lawsuits are a fact of life in today's world, but many of them go away, either through a relatively inexpensive settlement or a dismissal via summary judgment.  What most employers really fear is the suit that is not settled, survives summary judgment, and must be tried to a jury.   A careless recommendation on LinkedIn is just the sort of evidence that can generate a genuine factual dispute in a case and make it more risky and expensive than it otherwise would have been.

This is an important discussion because social networking remains a relatively new phenomenon that the law has not yet caught up with.    We welcome more comments and debate on this issue.

Text Harassment?

 The National Law Journal reports today that text messages are becoming a growing liability concern for employers.    Offensive and inappropriate texts are increasingly being used as evidence in sexual harassment cases.  According to the article, the main culprit is male bosses sending scandalous messages to female subordinates asking them on dates or making promises in return for sexual favors.    What used to be a "he said she said" case can now be proved with electronic evidence.

What is an employer to do?   First, it is important to note that a bona fide sexual harassment reporting procedure is still the best defense against these kinds of claims.   Once there is a report of harassment, it is important to conduct a thorough investigation, including obtaining copies of the offending texts in question.  Text messaging also raises e-discovery concerns.   Whether an employer has unfettered access to text messages may depend upon who owns or pays for the mobile phone where the texts were received or sent. 

[Hat Tip: Workplace Prof Blog]

Mid-Summer Employment Law Update

Between a busy trial schedule and the other distractions of summer, we have been a little delinquent in keeping you up to date during the past couple of weeks.  We apologize for the inactivity on the blog, as there have been many developments in the employment law world since our last posting at the end of June.   The following is a brief summary of four of the more interesting and important current events:

1.  Ricci v. DeStefano

The Supreme Court issued its opinion on June 29.   This is a significant case dealing with the sensitive and controversial issue of reverse discrimination.   The case is notable not only for the subject matter, but because Sonia Sotomayor, whose Senate confirmation hearings are now underway, was one of the judges on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals who decided the case below.  

The case was about firefighers in New Haven, Connecticut who applied to be on the promotion list for captain and lieutenant positions.   A candidate's rank on the list was determined by process that included written and oral exams.    After the testing process, only white and Hispanic candidates qualified for a promotion to captain, and only white candidates for lieutenant.   The City's Civil Service Board refused to certify the test results because it would result in no black candidates being eligible for promotion. 

The Ricci case presents a clash between two types of discrimination, disparate treatment and disparate impact.  Disparate treatment is intentional discrimination based upon race or some other legally protected classification.  Disparate impact, on the other hand, is not necessarily intentional discrimination, but occurs when job criteria that are neutral on their face have an adverse impact on certain groups.   In this case, the black firefighters contended the testing process was discriminatory because it resulted in no black candidates qualifying for the promotions list.     The City's defense in the lawsuit brought by the white firefighters was that it could not certify the list because if it did, it would be subject to disparate impact liability.   In other words, the City did not believe it could promote only white candidates because it would be sued by the non-white candidates who did not qualify for promotion.

The Supreme Court held it was unlawful for the City to refuse to certify the results of the promotional exam based solely upon the relative racial make-up of the candidates who qualified versus those who did not qualify.  The Court sympathzed with the City's position that it would be liable for disparate impact discrimination if the test results had been certified.  However, Justice Kennedy, writing for a 5-4 majority, held that, at least in this case, such concerns did not justify denying promotions to candiates who had the highest scores because no black candidates were in that group.   

Is is ever permissible to make an employment decision based upon an employee's race because of the fear of disparate impact liability to persons of another race?  The Court concluded such a decision would be permissible only if there is a  "strong basis in evidence" it would be subject to disparate impact liability.  In the Ricci case, the Court concluded, the evidence showed the City had taken great care to ensure its testing process was free from discriminatory impact and reasonably related to the jobs for which it tested.  Therefore, there was insufficient basis for the City to conclude its tests had an unlawful disparate impact.

For detailed discussion, analysis, and contrasting arguments on the Ricci case, I recommend the following posts:  First, for a local flavor, Connecticut Employment Law Blog provides a good summary of the lessons to be learned from the case.   Employee rights attorney Ellen Simon opines at Employee Rights Post that the Ricci decision was not only wrongly decided, but is bad for both employers and employees.  Finally, for an analysis without the rhetoric, try SCOTUSblog.

2.   Employers and Social Networking

Facebook, Linked In, and other social networking sites have exploded in popularity in recent years.  Are employers entitled to make employment decisions based upon information an employee posts on the internet outside of work time?  Should an employer allow or even encourage employees to use the social networking on the internet? 

For a detailed analysis of some of the issues surrounding social networking, I recommend the following:

  • In "The Voice", a weekly publication of the Defense Research Institute, attorney Helen Adams writes about the employment implications of "Doocing", a new slang word to describe terminations based upon an employee's activities on the internet. 
  • The Delaware Employment Law Blog discusses reasons employers should have a policy covering social networking sites.   
  •   The National Law Journal reports that some management side lawyers have warned about the use of Linked In to make recommendations of employees, for fear it will be used against the employee in the event  of a termination.
  • Locally, The Des Moines Register reported on the case of a police officer who was asked to resign because of photographs she posted on Myspace. 

Suffice it to say that social networking is not going away any time soon, and employers would be well advised to develop practices and policies for dealing with its impact on the workplace. 

3.  Al Franken Certified as the Winner of the Senate Race in Minnesota

This is imporant because Mr. Franken becomes the 60th Democratic Senator, giving the party a filibuster proof majority.   The Senate thus constituted is in a better position to pass EFCA, or the so-called "Employee Free Choice Act."  EFCA would have a substantial impact on labor law in the United States and present many challenges for employers.  I recommend the the blog at Laborpains.org to keep track of the latest developments on EFCA and other labor union matters.

4.  WARN Act

The WSJ Law Blog notes that litigation relating to layoffs is heating up, particularly under the heretofore seldom utilized WARN Act.  WARN requires employers under certain circumstances to provide at least 60 days notice of plant shutdowns or significant layoffs.   A violation means the employer has to pay wages to the laid off employees for the sixty period, plus other potential penalties.   However, the fact that the downturn occurred so swiftly and is protracted  may provide a defense to a WARN Act claims.

Stay Cool!