It is a difficult balance for employers between respecting the rights to speech and other protected activity of their employees and avoiding a hostile workplace created by such speech. All too often employees may express views that are protected, but in ways that may be intimidating to their co-workers and create a hostile work environment. This tricky balance may soon gain much needed clarification. The D.C. Circuit Court of appeals, in issuing a decision in the case of Constellium Rolled Products Ravenswood, LLC v. NLRB, 945 F.3d 546 (D.C.Cir. 2019) set up the possibility.

The case involved an employee who was notified of his termination after writing “whore board” on the employer’s overtime signup sheet by way of protest of the employer’s newly adopted overtime policy. The administrative judge had found that the speech was protected under the National Labor Relations Act Section 8(a)(1) and that it was an unfair trade practice by illegally restraining the employee’s ability to participate in union activity under Section 8(a)(3).

While the D.C. Circuit agreed with the administrative law judge and the NLRB that the employee had been protected under the Act, it faulted the NLRB’s analysis for failing to take into consideration the employer’s “obligations under federal and state anti-discrimination laws to maintain a harassment-free environment.” 945 F.3d 546, 551.  The court then remanded the case to the NLRB to consider the balance between the employee’s protected activities and the employer’s responsibility to provide a harassment-free environment. This will potentially give the NLRB a chance to establish a framework in which to balance these types of cases.

The employer, in its arguments set forth two different proposed tests that could have found the employee’s speech to be unprotected due to the vulgar and offensive manner in which it was done. The company put forth a totality of the circumstances test, which would take into account the company’s anti-harassment policies in effect at the time. The employer alternatively proposed that the NLRB adopt the similar four-part test set forth in Atlantic Steel Co., 245 NLRB No. 107 (1979) that would take into consideration: (1) the place of the discussion; (2) the subject matter of the discussion; (3) the nature of the employee’s outburst; and (4) whether the outburst was, in any way, provoked by an employer’s unfair labor practice.

The test that is chosen will have a substantial effect on how employers can go about protecting their employees from harassment and intimidation while not running afoul of the Act. Great attention should be paid to the result.