Appeals court affirms T-Mobile’s positive workplace rules

An appeals court has ruled in favor of T-Mobile. (U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit)

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit in New Orleans has ruled (PDF) in favor of T-Mobile (Case No. 16-60284), finding that an HR policy that requires employees to "maintain a positive work environment" is permissible, and characterizing the National Labor Relations Board's attempts to ban the rule as "unreasonable.”

The case was brought after a complaint was lodged against T-Mobile in 2014 with the NLRB by the Communications Workers of America union, arguing that several of the provisions of the telecommunications company’s employee handbook violated the National Labor Relations Act.

According to court papers, T-Mobile’s employee handbook: (1) encouraged employees to “maintain a positive work environment,” (2) prohibited “[a]rguing or fighting,” “failing to treat others with respect,” and “failing to demonstrate appropriate teamwork,” (3) prohibited all photography and audio or video recording in the workplace; and (4) prohibited access to electronic information by nonapproved individuals.

The NLRB ruled that all four provisions violated the National Labor Relations Act because each of them discouraged unionizing or other concerted activity protected by the act.

In support of that ruling, according to a Sept. 7 report on the case by the Society for Human Resource Management, the National Labor Relations Act gives employees “the right to engage in activities intended to improve the terms and conditions of their employment.” To enforce that right, the act makes it illegal for employers to interfere when employees engage in reasonably related activities.

On appeal, however, the 5th Circuit held that the board blundered in finding that the first, second and fourth policies interfered with employees' rights. The test of whether a policy violates the act, the court said, is whether a "reasonable employee reading the rules would construe them to prohibit conduct protected by the act.”

The court said that “a reasonable employee of T-Mobile would interpret the policy as requiring professional manners, positive work environment, effective and courteous communications, getting along with everybody, common sense and people skills.”

However, the court did say that T-Mobile's policy prohibiting all recording in the workplace could be read as a ban on protected activity. Therefore that policy was denied enforcement by the court.