The Law @ Work

NLRB: Employees Can Use Company E-mail for Organizing Efforts and Other Non-Business Reasons

by John S. Gannon

It seemed inevitable that the NLRB would stir the pot again before the close of 2014.  Earlier this year, we discussed the NLRB’s scrutiny of employer handbooks.  The trend continued last week when the Board issued another controversial decision in the realm of employer policies.  The decision may have significant implications on your policies or practices governing employee email and computer usage.

In Purple Communications, Inc., issued on December 11, 2014, the Board overruled seven years of established law on the issue of employee email system usage.  Back in 2007, the Board held in Register Guard that employers could prohibit employees from using company computers, including email systems, for non-business purposes.  According to the 2014 Board, the Register Guard decision was “clearly erroneous,” and employee use of company email to discuss terms and conditions of employment, including organizing activity, must be permitted during nonworking time.

Employers are not required to give employees access to their computer and email network.  But when they do, employees must be allowed to participate in group discussions about working conditions, including organizing activity.  Employers can limit non-business email use to nonworking time, such as meal and work breaks, but they cannot prohibit non-business use altogether.

Notably, the employer’s policy in Purple Communications stated that employees were “strictly prohibited from using the computer, internet, voicemail and email systems, and other Company equipment in connection with . . . [e]ngaging in activities on behalf of organizations or persons with no professional or business affiliation with the Company.”  Employers often have similar language in their handbooks aimed at banning non-work related email and computer usage.  These polices may need to be updated in response to the Board’s recent Purple Communications decision.  With the new year approaching, now is a good time to review your handbook for compliance.

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