December 9, 2016

Business Brief

NLRB Ruling Warns Against Disciplining Employees Who Gripe
March 16, 2011 by Jim Giuliano

Suppose a disruptive employee comes to you and makes wild accusations and complaints over pay or benefits. Be careful how you respond.

In the case of Parexel International, LLC, the company fired the employee; and ran afoul of the National Labor Relations Board, which ruled that the company violated labor laws.

The NLRB already grants all employees, unionized or not, the right to engage in protected “concerted activity” and prohibits employers from discriminating against or disciplining employees who engage in such activity. Included in “concerted activity” is the right for employees to talk with one another about their wages, hours and working conditions and that an employer may not discipline or discriminate against employees who engage in such discussions.

In the Parexel case, an employee was fired after complaining to her supervisor about a perceived wage disparity. Even though she never discussed the issue with other employees, she complained that the firing went against the concerted-activity principle. In a 2-1 vote, the NLRB upheld the complaint and ruled the employer had unjustly fired the employee.

How is it possible?

Why? Here’s the board’s explanation from the ruling:

It is beyond dispute that an employer violates Section 8(a)(1) by threatening to terminate an employee in order to prevent her from exercising her … rights, for example, by discussing wages with co-workers. It follows that an employer similarly violates Section 8(a)(1) by simply terminating the employee in order to be certain that she does not exercise her … rights. Indeed, the Board has often held that an employer violates the Act when it acts to prevent future protected activity.

The dissenting member of the board described the majority’s finding as “unprecedented” and stated that he had “serious reservations” about the “potential breadth of its application in future cases.”

The lesson from the ruling: Be careful about disciplining or firing employees who complain to a supervisor about pay or working conditions. Such action on the part of an employer could leave the company open to a lawsuit or adverse ruling from the NLRB.

Check out the NLRB’s full ruling.

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