Are conflicts of interest policies a violation of labor law?

In recent years, an unfortunate – in my view – line of decisions and reports has been issued by the U.S. National Labor Relations Board (“the NLRB”) holding that various aspects of company policies violate the National Labor Relations Act (“the Act”).  For those looking to learn more about this area generally, a good place to start is with this article by Joe Murphy in a recent issue of Compliance & Ethics Professional.  Of particular concern to readers of the COI Blog might be a decision handed down by the NLRB  in June – in Remington Lodging & Hospitality, LLC d/b/a The Sheraton Anchorage – finding that a generic conflict of interest policy in an employer’s handbook was unlawful under the Act.  The case can be found here, but – given the procedural history involved – readers may wish instead to review this summary of it published by attorneys at the Arent Fox law firm.

The case may be seen as an instance of bad facts making bad law, as the respondent company had asserted that certain employees had violated its COI policy by engaging in what were clearly protected activities under the Act (presenting a boycott petition to management).  Based on this, all three members of the NLRB panel hearing the case found that the company had engaged in an unfair labor practice.

However, two of the panel members also found that the COI policy was unlawful on its face. As noted in the Arent Fox summary, the majority found that “employees would reasonably interpret the rule prohibiting them from having a ‘conflict of interest’ with the Respondent as encompassing activities protected by the Act. Particularly when viewed in the context of the Respondent’s other unlawfully overbroad rules, ‘employees would reasonably fear that the rule prohibits any conduct the Respondent may consider to be detrimental to its image or reputation or to present a ‘conflict’ with its interests, such as informational picketing, strikes, or other economic pressure.’”

The third member of the panel – while agreeing “with the majority that the Respondent violated …the Act when it applied the rule against conflicts of interest to restrict employees’ [protected] activity…. disagreed with the majority’s additional finding that the rule against conflicts of interest was unlawful on its face. ‘Employers have a legitimate interest in preventing employees from maintaining a conflict of interest, whether they compete directly against the employer, exploit sensitive employer information for personal gain, or have a fiduciary interest that runs counter to the employer’s enterprise.’ Therefore, he wrote ‘I do not agree with my colleagues’ conclusion that employees would reasonably understand the conflict-of-interest rule as one that extends to employees’ efforts to unionize or improve their terms or conditions of employment.’ In his view, ‘the rule, on its face, does not reasonably suggest that efforts to unionize or improve terms and conditions of employment are prohibited.’ He also noted that the challenged rule was immediately adjacent to a rule in Respondent’s handbook stating: ‘I understand that it is against company policy to have an economic, social or family relationship with someone that I supervise or who supervises me and I agree to report such relationships.’ He claimed that this context ‘bolsters my conclusion that the Respondent’s rule merely conveys a prohibition on truly disabling conflicts and not a restriction on activities protected by the Act.’”

I wholeheartedly agree with this concurrence (and the authors of the Arent Fox piece) and add that in my 25 years of creating, enhancing and assessing C&E programs I have seen zero indication (until this case) that generic COI provisions are likely to be interpreted as limiting activities protected by labor law. Murphy’s general analysis of the NLRB’s approach to C&E policies applies with particular force to this recent decision: “what the NLRB has done here is venture into the field of Compliance and Ethics without close consultation with those in the field and without sufficient regard for the important public policy behind compliance and ethics programs.”

Beyond this, the underlying assumption of the decision is that the efforts of working people to act through labor unions are in fact disloyal to such individuals’ employers.  While ostensibly a “pro-labor” holding, the implication here is potentially anti-labor.

One hopes that this will be fixed before too long – by the NLRB itself, or some court.

 

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