Avoid Workplace Communication Chills

Labor laws may prohibit some overly broad policies, but not candid, direct conversations between you and your employees.Employer communications amid a labor dispute can be uncomfortable. With new advisories from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), communications and communication policies also can be very tricky.

Davis Wright Tremaine's Peter Finch notes employers can be sucked into a NLRB unfair labor practice with overly broad social media policies. Writing recently for the Puget Sound Business Journal, the labor lawyer and former NLRB staff member says, "Some nonunion employers may be surprised to learn they are subject to the NLRB's jurisdiction and their social media policies, handbooks and other rules must comply with the National Labor Relations Act."

In an email advisory, the law firm reported a recent case in which the NLRB ruled an employer "violated the law by requesting that an employee refrain from disclosing his workplace complaint with coworkers while the employer was conducting a confidential internal investigation."

Davis Wright Tremaine attorneys note the National Labor Relations Act "prohibits employers from interfering with, restraining or coercing employees in the exercise of rights relating to organizing, forming, joining or assisting a labor organization for collective bargaining purposes, from working together to improve terms and conditions of employment or refraining from any such activity."

In his article, Finch said an example of an overly broad employer policy in the eyes of the NLRB is a requirement that employee social media posts be "completely accurate and not misleading."

Whatever the chilling effects of such rulings and advisories may be, they shouldn't prevent employers from talking with their employees. They should make you cautious of talking down to your employees.

Workplace sore spots aren't always resolved by edicts or added pages in an employee handbook, but they can inflame already tense situations.

Here are a few tips for productive employee communications:

1. Direct is better than indirect. When there is a problem or misunderstanding, talking directly to the workers involved is the best policy. This gives you a chance to hear first-hand about the problem and address it immediately before it festers. Sometimes employees don't feel empowered to lodge concerns, so it is good idea to have regular meetings and an informal format that make it safe for workers to say what's on their minds.

2. Avoid sudden policy changes. Before typing up and posting new policies, it may be wiser to consult with workers about the problem you see and how to address it. Including your workforce in policy changes that significantly affect them is respectful and gives them ownership of policies that are installed before they read about them on a company bulletin board.

3. Honesty is the best policy. Instead of fretting over rules, employers should feel free to speak candidly to workers. Increasingly, workers expect candor, especially about financial and competitive matters that impact their jobs. However, speaking candidly doesn't mean berating or publicly embarrassing employees. Avoid finger-pointing unless you are accepting responsibility for a mistake you made. And make sure what you say to employees is what they see later in policies or internal communications.

4. You can't control everything. The impulse to be in control needs to be worked out on the handball court, not in conversations with your staff. If you treat them like colleagues, not vassals, they will act like your partners, offering good advice. Stifling the urge to be seen as in charge will make it easier for people to look up to you when the time comes that you need to be in charge.