With ever-changing federal, state, and local laws, employers often wonder whether they can implement certain conduct-related policies. Here are answers to some common questions about workplace rules:
Q: We have a TV in our break room and employees have gotten into political discussions as a result of watching the news. Can I prohibit them from discussing politics while at work?
A: While employers in the private sector may generally place reasonable restrictions on political discussions during work time, trying to restrict all political discussion may be impractical and could have negative effects on employee morale. Instead, consider monitoring the issue, and if these types of discussions become disruptive, interfere with work product, or potentially violate nondiscrimination laws, respond in accordance with your company's written policies and practices. For example, if an employee complains that a co-worker made discriminatory remarks when voicing support for or against a political figure, conduct an investigation to determine whether the employee violated company policy or possibly nondiscrimination laws. When monitoring employee conduct, treat all employees consistently regardless of their political views.
Q: Our state recently made it easier for individuals to carry concealed weapons. Am I required to allow employees to do so in the workplace?
A: Employers generally have the right to prohibit employees from carrying weapons in the workplace, even if the employee has a concealed or open-carry weapon permit. In some states, however, employees are allowed to store and transport their lawfully-possessed firearms in their locked personal vehicles on company parking lots. Review your state law to ensure your weapons policies are compliant.
Note: Several states require employers to post notices before banning weapons in the workplace.
Q: We are losing a lot of our employees to the same competitor and one of our employees left to start a company very similar to ours. Can I have a policy that prevents employees from working with a competitor?
A: This type of restriction is usually found in the form of a contract or agreement with an employee, known as a non-competition (non-compete) agreement or restrictive covenant. In many states, restrictive covenants must be limited in scope or are sometimes prohibited entirely. Due to the complexities involved, and the contractual nature of this type of restriction, consult legal counsel before entering into a non-compete agreement with an employee.
Q: Can I prohibit employees from participating in small-stakes pools for basketball tournaments and football championships during work hours? What about fantasy sports?
A: Gambling is generally prohibited under federal law, and some states have enacted laws that specifically prohibit gambling in the workplace (some consider fantasy sports a form of gambling if money is involved). Even in states that don't prohibit gambling, employers have the right to ban gambling and fantasy sports in the workplace and on company property.
Q: Can our company prohibit employees from using company email for union-organizing activities?
A: Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act, which is enforced by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), gives employees the right to work together to improve their wages and working conditions, regardless of whether they are in a union. In the last few years, the NLRB has held that employees have a right to access their employer's email system to engage in Section 7-protected activities provided that it's done on nonworking time and the employer has given them access to the email system for other purposes.
Q: Our state now permits recreational marijuana and we have a longstanding policy that prohibits marijuana on all company property. An employee argued that we need to change our policy to treat marijuana like we do tobacco. Is he correct?
A: Even in states that permit recreational marijuana, employers have the right to prohibit employees from using, possessing, or being impaired by marijuana in the workplace, on company property, and during work hours. In other words, you don't have to allow marijuana during breaks even if you allow tobacco.
Before drafting and implementing any policy or rule, review and understand federal, state, and local laws. Make sure you have a legitimate business reason for the policy, consider the potential impact on employee productivity, morale, and safety, and apply your policies consistently.