by Ed Carlstedt
This week’s employment law lesson comes to us from the movie Horrible Bosses. In the movie, Julia (played by Jennifer Aniston) is a dentist who employs dental assistant Dale (played by Charlie Day). After Julia uses her boss status to torture and torment Dale for most of the movie, Dale finally records her improprieties and delivers to her the following long-overdue payback speech:
This is what’s gonna happen. I’m going to take a two-week-long, very expensive holiday with my fiancée. Let’s call it a honeymoon. And YOU’RE going to pay for it! Then I’m going to return to a nice, rape-free workplace from now on. Because if you so much as LOOK at my sexy little a**, Julia, I will have yours locked the f*** up you CRAZY B**** WH***! Man, that felt GOOD!
In the movie, Dale’s quote is an amusing moment of vindication and redemption, one that Julia’s conduct warrants. You literally find yourself rooting for Dale as he delivers the obscenity-laced tirade. The notion of telling off a horrible boss without fear of reprisal is every aggrieved employee’s dream. And in the movie, there was nothing Aniston’s character could do other than sit there and take it. But in real life, what does an employer do when an employee posts similar obscenities about it on social media. Well, if the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has anything to say about it, you might have to adopt an Aniston-esque approach to responding to the potty-mouthed employee.
In Pier Sixty, LLC, 362 NLRB No. 59 (Mar. 31, 2015), a managerial-level employee of a catering business (Bob) asked several staff-level employees to spread out during a fundraising event and stop chitchatting. One of the employees was so offended by the manager’s instructions that he posted the following on Facebook:
Bob is such a NASTY MOTHER F***** don’t know how to talk to people!!!!!! F*** his mother and his entire f****** family!!!! What a LOSER!!!! Vote YES for the UNION!!!!!!!
Shortly thereafter, the employer learned about the Facebook post, conducted an investigation, and terminated the employee. In analyzing the employee’s Facebook post, the NLRB found that his comments were protected activity under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) because they pertained to concerted activity and union activity. The NLRB found that the employee’s comments (all of his comments, including the F-bombs and accompanying family love-making references) were protected. Therefore, the NLRB found that the employer violated the NLRA when it terminated the employee for his participation in protected conduct, and it awarded him back pay.
Several other cases adhere to the sentiments of the Pier Sixty case, including Three D, LLC v. NLRB, 2015 WL 6161477 (2d Cir. 2015), and Whole Foods Market, Inc., 363 NLRB No. 87 (Dec. 24, 2015). These cases demonstrate that employers should be extraordinarily careful when disciplining employees over social media posts, particularly when the posts or questionable conduct pertains in any way to conditions of employment.
Based on these decisions, the NLRB and courts are likely to broadly define protected activity under the NLRA, even when the employee’s comments are riddled with profanity and make statements damaging to the employer. Thus, just like Jennifer Aniston in Horrible Bosses, employers may be forced to turn the other cheek when confronted with what appear to be obscene and inflammatory employee remarks. To the extent you are an employer considering disciplinary action based on an employee’s social media post, we highly recommend you consult with counsel before taking such action.