Noting the employer did not have an employee code of conduct policy prohibiting the use of derogatory language, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) held an automotive dealership violated the National Labor Relations Act by wrongfully terminating a union employee for calling the owner a derogatory term during negotiations. Cadillac of Naperville, Inc., 371 NLRB No. 140 (Sept. 22, 2022).
The Board explained that the employer failed to demonstrate it would have terminated the employee absent the alleged protected activity and that such derogatory language was common in the employer’s workplace.
In Cadillac, unionized employees commenced a strike after negotiations for a successor collective bargaining agreement stalled. The employee in question, a member of the union’s negotiating team, got into a verbal altercation with the employer’s owner and yelled a derogatory term at the owner. The employer terminated the employee for insubordination.
To decide whether an employee was disciplined for engaging in protected activity, the NLRB applied its mixed motive Wright Line test. The Board first found the general counsel (the Board’s prosecutorial authority) established a prima facie case of retaliation under Wright Line. It held the employee engaged in protected activity, the employer knew of the activity, and the activity was a motivating factor in the disciplinary action.
The NLRB then determined the employer failed to satisfy its burden of demonstrating it would have terminated the employee regardless of the employee’s protected concerted activity. The NLRB concluded the employee’s behavior was “the utterance of a single derogatory term in response to a profane threat of physical force from the owner…” and use of such language by both parties was common. Additionally, the employer did not produce evidence of any policy prohibiting such conduct to rebut the inference of an improper motive. As a result, the Board found the employer violated the Act.
The Board’s recent decisions applying the mixed motive Wright Line standard remind employers that they should promulgate, maintain, and consistently enforce clear and narrowly tailored work rules and policies. Doing so will help an employer establish it would have taken the same action against an employee regardless of purported protected concerted or union activity should discipline later be challenged.
The current NLRB’s recent decisions underscore its willingness to expand the scope of protected employee conduct, while requiring employers to demonstrate more rigorous proof of available defenses. Employers may contact their Jackson Lewis attorney should they have questions.