On Thursday, the NLRB released their highly anticipated ruling on Purple Communication, Inc. This ruling severely limits an organization’s right to restrict employees’ use of email.

Here’s the back story:  Purple Communications was going through a union organizing campaign in 2012.  When the union came up short in the certification election, they alleged that Purple’s email policy restricted employee conversations regarding terms and conditions of the workplace.

Purple had, as do most employers, rules limiting the use of email including these examples: “Engaging in activities on behalf of organizations or persons with no professional or business affiliation with the Company”; and, “Sending uninvited email of a personal nature.”

While these might not sound on the surface as though they would interfere with Union organizing activities, that is the case that was taken to the NLRB.

In a 3-2 vote, the NLRB determined that email is such an integral part of communications at an organization that limiting its use conflicts with Section 7 of the NLRA.  They did allow that employers do not have an obligation to provide email access to employees who don’t use it as a part of their work, and that employers may establish a total ban on the non-work use of email if it is required by special circumstances.  The NLRB did not define what those “special circumstances” might be and this seems like a rule that would be impossible to enforce consistently.

Here’s what we recommend:

  1. Do revisit your handbook and make certain that your email policy isn’t overly restrictive and leaves room for conversations about working conditions.
  2. Don’t take action against employees who discuss pay, leadership, or other working conditions via email.
  3. Do remind your employees that since you own the system, you can view their email activity – and then do so, occasionally.

Most importantly, keep the lines of communication with your employees open to pro-actively address concerns about working conditions before they feel the urge to reach out to a union for help.  If employees know that they can talk to you about their concerns, they will be less likely to spend time emailing their co-workers about unresolved issues.

In the meantime, look for more information on this decision.  There is likely more to come as employers and legislators alike, consider how this will impact organizations.

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