Human resources experts often recommend a detailed analysis before disciplining an employee for offensive statements. On April 21, 2017, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals highlighted this requirement and forced an employer to reinstate an employee who had been fired for posting highly offensive comments about his supervisor. Although this case, National Labor Relations Board v. Pier Sixty LLC, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 6974 (2d Cir. April 21, 2017), involved a union organizing campaign, such a dispute can arise outside the union context. It can arise in a breakroom conversation, a media interview, a picket sign, or a social media post. If the content involves protected speech, such as criticism of the terms and conditions of the employee’s employment, and especially if the speech purports to speak on behalf of or for the benefit of others, the speech may be protected, whether or not there is a union involved.
In Pier Sixty, the employee posted on Facebook that his supervisor is a “NASTY MOTHER F—ER” and “F—his mother and his entire f—ing family!!!” The post criticized his supervisor’s communications style, saying, “…don’t know how to talk to people!!!!” The post also included a pro-union statement, “Vote YES for the UNION!!!!!!”
The court weighed the protections (here, concerted activity) versus how abusive or “opprobrious” the comments were. The court reviewed the context of the statements, including that the employer was found to have permitted past vulgarity and to have engaged in other efforts to impede unionizing efforts. Commenting that these posts fall on the “outer bounds” of protected activity, the court declared the posts to be within the bounds of protected concerted activity and required the employer to bring the discharged employee back to work.
Employers should ensure that workplace rules are consistently enforced and that the reason for discharge does not involve and does not appear to involve a protected reason. Employers should be prepared to articulate and, if required, prove the lawful reason for discharge rather than relying on at-will status.