Email Use Policies: The beginning of the end?


A December 2014 National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decision in reference to the Purple Communications, Inc. case might have started the decline of employer’s rights over how their property and systems can be used by employees.

In the 2007 Guard Publishing decision, the NLRB held that the National Labor Relations Act does not give employees the right to use an employer’s email system for union-related business, i.e., activity not related to the running of the business. Partly because of this decision, employers have regularly created and enforced email use policies that forbid the use of the employer’s email system for anything other than actual company business. This decision was supposedly based on the NLRB’s comparison of an employer’s bulletin board, telephone system, copy machines and PA systems to the employer’s email system. In other words, employees did not have carte blanche to utilize these other systems for non-business-related activities either.

The NLRB Purple Communications decision reversed the 2007 ruling and held that employees do now have the presumptive right to use their employer’s email system for non-work NLRB-protected purposes. But does this decision also reverse the practice of employers restricting the use of the other systems (copy machines, bulletin boards, etc.) to strictly business-related purposes?

There are several points to keep in mind before taking over your employer’s copy machine to print 1,000 garage sale flyers.

  • The 2014 NLRB-Purple Communications decision was limited to email systems only.
  • The 2014 NLRB-Purple Communications decision was limited to actual employees of the company—not family members or anyone else.
  • The 2014 NLRB-Purple Communications decision relates to activities protected by the National Labor Relations Act, i.e., union-related activities only.
  • The NLRB invalidated the prior validity of prohibitions of the non-work use of company physical property such as the previously mentioned copy machines, bulletin boards, and telephone systems.

Another interesting fact from the 2014 case is that the NLRB (re)confirmed an employer’s right to monitor its email system for “legitimate management purposes” and that employees continue to have no expectation of privacy in their use of the employer’s email system. But the NLRB stated that the employer may not increase employee email monitoring during union-organizing campaigns or focus monitoring activities on “protected” conduct or union activists specifically.

Obviously, the NLRB decision was directed specifically to companies with union membership and activities. But this raises the question of the use of employer equipment and systems for non-union-related activities. Will this decision be used to erode employer restrictions on the use of company property in the future?

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