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NLRB Upholds Workplace Ban on Recording Devices

This case offers hope to employers that there exists a more reasonable analysis of the application of Section 7 rights to workplace policies other than suggested by the Board’s recent actions.

November 7, 2013
Related Topics: Legal Compliance, Unions, Miscellaneous Legal Issues, Technology and the Law, Policies and Procedures, Legal
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Two months ago I wrote the following, concerning whether employers should be thinking about implementing bans on employees using recording devices in the workplace:

If you do not have a policy against employees recording conversations in the workplace, you might want to consider drafting one. You never know when an employee is going to try to smuggle a recording device into a termination or other meeting. The proliferation of smart phones has only made it easier for employees to make recordings, both audio and video. Why not address this issue head-on with a policy? Unless, of course, the [National Labor Relations Board] gets its way and renders these policies per se illegal.

At least as to the last point (the legality of such bans under the National Labor Relations Act), we now have the beginnings of an answer, via the decision of an NLRB Administrative Law Judge (the finality of which depends on whether the union appeals the decision to the full Board in Washington D.C.).

In Whole Foods Market, Inc. (NLRB Case No. 01-CA-096965 10/30/13) [pdf], the union challenged the following no-recording policy:

It is a violation of Whole Foods Market policy to record conversations with a tape recorder or other recording device (including a cell phone or any electronic device) unless prior approval is received from your store or facility leadership. The purpose of this policy is to eliminate a chilling effect to the expression of views that may exist when one person is concerned that his or her conversation with another is being secretly recorded. This concern can inhibit spontaneous and honest dialogue especially when sensitive or confidential matters are being discussed.

Violation of this policy will result in corrective action up to and including discharge.

The ALJ concluded that this policy did not violate the rights of the employees of Whole Foods to engage in protected concerted activity under the National Labor Relations Act:

I have found no cases, and none have been cited, in which the Board has found that making recordings of conversations in the workplace is a protected right…. Even if recording a conversation is a protected right, the Respondent is entitled to make a valid rule, such as the one in question here, to regulate its workplace, and in doing so, prohibit such activity….

The rule does not prohibit employees from engaging in protected, concerted activities, or speaking about them. It does not expressly mention any Section 7 activity. The only activity the rule forbids is recording conversations or activities with a recording device. Thus, an employee is free to speak to other employees and engage in protected, concerted activities in those conversations….

There is no basis for a finding that a reasonable employee would interpret this rule as prohibiting Section 7 activity.

In light of this decision, what is an employer to do?

  1. Review any existing workplace recording policies to ensure that the stated reasons for the policy is clear. For example, in Whole Foods, the company relied on the protection of “candor and forthrightness in employee opinions.”

  2. Do not institute a new recording ban, or amend an existing policy, in response to union activity.

  3. Do not apply a recording ban to limit or prohibit the recording of protected Section 7 activity (wages, benefits, terms and conditions of employment, union issues, etc.).

  4. Limit the prohibition to working time and work spaces.

This case offers hope to employers that there exists a more reasonable analysis of the application of Section 7 rights to workplace policies other than suggested by the Board’s recent actions.

Written by Jon Hyman, a partner in the Labor & Employment group of Kohrman Jackson & Krantz. For more information, contact Hyman at (216) 736-7226 or jth@kjk.com. You can also follow Hyman on Twitter at @jonhyman.

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