In April, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that employers could not prohibit “negativity” and “gossip” in the workplace. The NLRB, which is a federal agency responsible for protecting employees’ rights, ensures that employers abide by the National Labor Relations Act (the Act). Under the Act, employers shall not violate employees’ right to “engage in . . . concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining.”  Employers violate the Act when creating company policies that hinder employees’ right to protest conditions of employment. A recent NLRB decision demonstrates that companies should seek to limit gossip in the workplace but should tackle the issue by enacting carefully drafted company policies that leave employees’ right to protest unhindered.

Hills and Dales General Hospital’s Unlawful Company Policies

In Hills and Dales General Hospital and Danielle Corlis, 360 HLRB No. 70 (Apr. 1, 2014), Michigan’s General Hospital suffered from an extremely poor work environment. Multiple health departments in General Hospital failed to cooperate and employees fought with one another, causing patients to seek care elsewhere. In an effort to improve employee synergy within the hospital, General Hospital issued new company policies called “Values and Standards of Behavior.” Its new policies banned employees from making negative comments about one another, engaging in negativity or gossip, and representing the hospital in a non-professional manner.

Employees initially expressed cynicism towards the gossip policies, but eventually, General Hospital’s attempt to maintain a professional work environment paid off.  Soon after the hospital banned gossip, staff recruitment and patient satisfaction improved. The vicious gossip that spread through its hallways, undercutting efficiency and increasing workplace violence, slowly disappeared. By implementing strict company policies, it appeared that General Hospital offered the perfect solution to solving the recurring issue of workplace gossip—until the NLRB held otherwise. 

After a hospital employee received a written warning for posting gossip about General Hospital on Facebook, the employee sued General Hospital, arguing that the “Values and Standard of Behavior” interfered with employees’ right to protest, and the NLRB agreed. While the policies did not explicitly limit employees’ right to protest, the NLRB reasoned that the policies prevented employees from complaining about conditions of their employment. Because the policies discouraged employees from voicing “negative” opinions regarding their employment, the NLRB construed the policies as unfair labor practices. General Hospital succeeded at recognizing gossip’s negative impact in its workplace, yet erred by going beyond gossip and attempting to setting constraints on free speech. 

What Does Hills and Dales General Hospital Teach Idaho Employers?

Hills and Dales General Hospital demonstrates that Idaho employers should establish policies that encourage employees to express both (1) positive attitudes and (2) negative employment conditions. Banning negativity in the workplace is an admirable, yet unlawful, goal for all Idaho employers. Instead, Idaho employers should establish unambiguous company policies that encourage positive and team-oriented working environments. Here are some tips for how Idaho employers can draft such company policies:

  • Avoid general prohibitions like negativity, gossip, unprofessionalism, and backstabbing
  • Offer specific examples of the kind of behavior your policies aim to prevent
  • Explain why your policies are in place
  • State why your policies do not prevent employees’ rights to protest their opinions
  • Post your policies in your workplace using signs or posters
  • Do not force employees to sign the policies—signing should be optional
  • Do not discipline employees for violating your policies. Instead, discuss why it is important that employees follow the policies

    Please contact a Gjording Fouser lawyer at 208.336.9777 if you would like any additional information about this topic or any other employment issues facing your company.