On April 20, 2018, the National Labor Relations Board, by adopting an ALJ’s decision, held that employees who replied in agreement to another employee’s critical group email about the employer’s workplace were engaged in protected concerted activities under the Act. The email discussed wages, work schedules, tip policies, working conditions, and management’s treatment of employees – all of which are protected topics of conversation as they encompass workers’ terms and conditions of employment. Notably, the email specifically addressed the other employees and advised that it was illegal for “management to intimidate” them, among other remarks.

Still, in the course of investigating, the employer ended up terminating each employee who responded positively to the critical email. The employer argued that these employees were not terminated for their responses, but rather were terminated for refusing to be interviewed by the restaurant regarding their concerns about the email and for skipping/walking out on scheduled shifts. In essence, the employer contended that the ALJ expanded the reach of protected concerted activity by finding concerted insubordination to be protected.

Ultimately, the Board held that neither the critical email nor the employees’ responses – which included such statements as “Thank you for standing up for us” and “I agree a 100% as well” – were egregious enough to lose the protections of the Act. The Board further found that the employer’s purported reasons for discharge were pretextual in nature. As such, the Board ordered the restaurant reinstate these employees to their prior positions, provide them with backpay for lost wages, and hang a notice posting at the job location (though compliance in terms of reinstatement and notice posting may be difficult since the restaurant has since closed).

In sum, this case serves as a helpful reminder to tread lightly whenever your employees are discussing terms of employment like wages, working conditions, and their general treatment at work, regardless of the forum (e.g., in-person, social media, or a group email). Here, the restaurant’s reaction to this critical email, and the employees’ responses, was less than ideal as it resulted in the employer terminating each employee within two days of responding to the email.  Notwithstanding legitimate reason(s) for discipline, the optics of this case placed the employer in an uphill battle from the beginning. And this, of course, would likely not have been the outcome had the employer contacted experienced labor attorneys prior to taking any action.

Carlos A. Torrejon is a former NLRB Attorney and an associate in the firm’s Labor and Employment Department, resident in its Morristown office.