NLRB Adopts New Standard for Evaluating Workplace Rules
by Caleb Johnston
November 1, 2023
The National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) has prescribed a new legal standard for evaluating whether an employer’s workplace rules tend to interfere with the rights of employees which are protected by Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”). Specifically, the NLRB’s decision in Stericycle, Inc., 372 NLRB No. 113 (N.L.R.B. Aug. 2, 2023) sets forth the new standard and overturns the old test established in Boeing Co., 365 NLRB No. 154 (N.L.R.B. Dec. 14, 2017), which had governed employer’s workplace rules for the past six years. Employers should be aware of the changes the NLRB has implemented as it may require an employer to revise its workplace rules to comply with the new Stericycle standard.
Under Section 7 of the NLRA, employees have the right to form, join, or assist labor unions and the right to join together as employees to advance their interests as employees. If an employer implements a workplace rule which interferes with, restrains, or coerces an employee in exercising their Section 7 rights, then the employer will have committed “unfair labor practice” in violation of the NLRA.
A workplace rule which threatens to terminate an employee for joining a labor union is clearly a violation of an employee’s Section 7 rights. However, the analysis is not as clear when an employer implements facially neutral workplace rule. For example, a workplace rule which prohibits employees from discussing or disclosing “confidential information” is facially neutral. If the term “confidential information” can be interpreted to include information such as individual salaries or work schedules, then the rule may violate Section 7 because employees have the right under Section 7 to discuss and disclose their salaries and work schedules. In these more challenging cases, the standard prescribed by the NLRB will be used to determine whether or not the facially neutral workplace rule in question violates an employee’s Section 7 rights.
The NLRB recently changed its standard for evaluating facially neutral workplace rules. The old standard, established in Boeing, sought to provide greater clarity and certainty for employers by placing workplace rules into one of three categories: (i) rules that were considered lawful; (ii) rules that were deemed unlawful; and (iii) rules that warranted “individualized scrutiny” to determine whether they violated an employee’s Section 7 rights. The three-category system established in Boeing is no longer in effect, however, as the NLRB recently decided to move to a more rigorous standard for analyzing workplace rules in Stericycle.
The New Stericycle Standard.
The new standard in Stericycle replaces Boeing’s categorical approach with a case-by-case analysis of workplace rules. The Stericycle standard also implements a burden shifting framework. First, the NLRB must prove that the challenged workplace rule “has a reasonable tendency to chill employees from exercising their Section 7 rights.” At this stage, the workplace rule is interpreted from the perspective of a “reasonable employee.” In other words, if an employee could reasonably interpret the workplace rule to interfere with, restrain, or coerce the employee in exercising their Section 7 rights, then the workplace rule is presumptively unlawful.
The burden then shifts to the employer to rebut the presumption. This will require the employer to prove “that the rule advances a legitimate and substantial business interest, and that the employer is unable to advance that interest with a more narrowly tailored rule.” If the employer can satisfy its burden, then the challenged workplace rule is upheld as lawful.
The new Stericycle standard went into effect on August 2, 2023, and applies retroactively, meaning that all workplace rules which are challenged as violating Section 7 of the NLRA will be reviewed by the NLRB under the Stericycle standard moving forward. As a result, workplace rules that were previously lawful for an employer to maintain under the Boeing standard may now be held unlawful under Stericycle. For example, a “no recording” rule which prohibits an employee from recording workplace conversations was categorically approved as lawful under Boeing. Today, however, the same rule may be held unlawful under Stericycle if the rule is not narrowly tailored to serve the employer’s legitimate and substantial business interest.
Employers should consider reviewing their employee handbooks, manuals and other documents containing work rules or policies to ensure compliance with the NLRB’s newly announced standard in Stericycle. In addition, employers should consider adopting a policy which specifically sets out an employee’s Section 7 rights under the NLRA and explains that the employer’s workplace rules should not be interpreted as restricting those rights. While there is no guarantee that such policy would save an employer’s workplace rule from violating the NLRA, the General Counsel for the NLRB has taken the position that such policy should create a presumption that an employer’s rules are lawful.
To discuss how Stericycle may impact your workplace rules, please feel free to contact one of our attorneys at (972) 392-8900.
This update should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion on any specific facts or circumstances. Further, this update shall not create a lawyer-client relationship. The contents are intended for general informational purposes only, and you are urged to consult an attorney regarding the contents hereof.