LinkedIn Activity May Violate Non-Solicitation Agreements

Q: A former employee has invited some of her former co-workers and clients to connect on LinkedIn. Is this a violation of her non-solicitation agreement with our company?

A: It depends. In general, a generic invitation to connect will not be viewed as a violation of a non-solicitation agreement.  However, if an invitation is accompanied by a personalized message or other targeted communication, it likely will be viewed as a violation.

In recent years, non-solicitation allegations have increasingly centered around the use of social media, and most prominently, LinkedIn. Employees argue that LinkedIn invitations are simply a way to keep in touch and maintain their professional networks.  In contrast, employers argue that LinkedIn invitations are an easy way for employees to solicit former colleagues and clients under the guise of connecting on a social network.  After the connection is made, the former colleague or client can see job postings and other information about the employee’s new place of work.  Employers contend that this is no different than an employee calling a former colleague and soliciting them to apply for a position, or calling a former client to solicit business.

In Bankers Life and Casualty Company v. American Senior Benefits, a recent case before the Appellate Court of Illinois, the court sided with the employee.  There, the employer alleged that a former employee’s invitations to three former colleagues to connect on LinkedIn violated his non-solicitation agreement.  The employer argued that, after connecting, the employees could view their colleague’s  profile, which had job listings at his new employer.  The court disagreed, holding that there was no violation of the non-solicitation agreement because the invitations to connect were generic and contained no discussion of either employer.  Additionally, the former employee did not suggest that his former coworkers view job postings at his new job or leave their employment with the company.  The court noted that if the employees accepted the connection, their next steps, which may have included viewing job postings on the new employer’s website page, were not actions for which the former employee could be held responsible.

By contrast, in Mobile Mini, Incorporated v. Citi-Cargo, a Minnesota District Court case, after resigning from her position as a regional sales representative for Mobile Mini, a former employee updated her LinkedIn profile to reflect her new position with a competitor, and posted an update describing her new employer’s business and inviting people to call her for a quote.  The court granted a preliminary injunction, holding that the employee’s postings were not, as the employee claimed, mere status updates announcing the employee’s new position and contact information, but rather were “blatant sales pitches” that were meant to “entice members of [the employee]’s network to call her for the purpose of making sales in her new position at Citi-Cargo.”  The court noted that, had the posts simply announced the employee’s new position and contact information, it was unlikely there would have been a breach.

As the cases above demonstrate, employers who want to enforce their former employees’ non-solicitation agreements should be on the lookout for employee social media activity that amounts to a sales pitch or enticement. However, a former employee who simply announces her new position and provides contact information likely will not be considered to have breached the agreement.

Pepper lawyers have seen a significant increase in both threatened and filed lawsuits relating to non-compete and non-solicitation agreements in the past year. Many of these agreements have imprecise language, which results in confusion on the part of the employee, former employer and new employer as to what kind of action constitutes solicitation, and often leads to disputes about the scope and enforceability of the provisions.  It is essential for employers to ensure they have clearly drafted non-solicitation and non-competition agreements so it can easily be determined whether a particular action violates the agreement.

Jessica X.Y. Rothenberg

 

Termination for Social Media Activity May Result in Unemployment Compensation Benefits

Q.  Our Company just terminated an employee for a social media post that was in violation of our social media policy. Will she be entitled to unemployment compensation benefits?

A.  Possibly.

While unemployment compensation laws vary from state-to-state, former employees generally are entitled to benefits unless the employer can prove that the employee’s employment ended due to a disqualifying reason, such as willful misconduct or voluntary discharge.

In a recent Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court decision, Waverly Heights, Ltd. v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, the Court affirmed a benefits award to a former human resources executive who was terminated for sending what the employer deemed to be a racially-charged tweet about the 2016 presidential election. Until her termination, Kathleen Jungclaus had served as the vice president of human resources of a retirement care community for nearly 20 years. Ms. Jungclaus was terminated when she posted a tweet to her personal Twitter account in July 2016 that stated “@realDonaldTrump I am the VP of HR in a comp outside of philly an informal survey of our employees shows 100% AA employees voting Trump!” Per the employer, “AA” referred to African Americans and Ms. Jungclaus’s tweet was an admission to singling out black staff members and asking them about their political preferences.

Ms. Jungclaus’s employer maintained a social media policy that stated it was the employer’s expectation that employees “who identify themselves with” the employer on social media promote and protect the reputation, dignity, respect, and confidentiality of the employer’s residents, clients and employees. Because of the racially-charged nature of the Tweet (and its presumed reference to African American employees), the employer argued that Ms. Jungclaus’s termination for violating the company’s social media policy constituted willful misconduct.

For Pennsylvania Unemployment Compensation Law purposes, “willful misconduct” is defined as “(1) wanton and willful disregard of an employer’s interests; (2) deliberate violation of rules; (3) disregard of the standards of behavior which an employer can rightfully expect from an employee; or, (4) negligence showing an intentional disregard of the employer’s interests or the employee’s duties and obligations.” When an employer seeks to deny a former employee unemployment compensation benefits based on a rule or policy violation, the employer must prove (a) the existence of the rule; (b) the reasonableness of the rule; and (c) the employee’s violation of the rule.

Applying these standards, the Commonwealth Court determined that there was sufficient evidence to support a finding that Ms. Jungclaus did not violate the social media policy because she did not explicitly “identify” herself as an employee of Waverly Heights—even though a Google search of Ms. Jungclaus’s name would reveal that she worked there. Furthermore, the Court concluded there was no evidence of “wanton and willful disregard of an employer’s interests” because there was no actual evidence that Ms. Jungclaus polled African-American employees about their political preferences.  The Court found that mere discussions of current affairs did not rise to the level of willful misconduct.

Importantly, the Court reviewed only whether Ms. Jungclaus was entitled to unemployment compensation benefits. The Court was not asked to consider whether the termination itself was unlawful.

The Obama-era National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) frequently concluded that overly broad social media policies could have a chilling effect on unionized and non-unionized employee rights to engage in concerted activities under the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”).  As we mentioned in a post earlier this year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that an employee’s social media post cursing at a supervisor and his family, made during a union election, was protected activity under the NLRA, and the employee could not be terminated for it. It remains to be seen how the Trump NLRB will interpret and enforce social media policies.

The primary lesson for employers? Unless an employer can affirmatively establish that a terminated employee engaged in willful misconduct or is ineligible for benefits due to other disqualifying reasons, then the terminated employee likely will be entitled to unemployment compensation benefits. Further, when making an employment decision based on an employee’s social media post, tread carefully. At least for unemployment purposes, it is likely that state labor departments and the courts will not find such comments to rise to the level of willful misconduct. Additionally, depending on the content and context of the post, the NLRB may find the post to be a lawful concerted activity protected by the NLRA.

Lee E. Tankle

Regulating Speech at Work

Q: Can a private employer limit its employees’ speech and political activity in the workplace?

A: Yes, but not speech that is considered part of a “concerted activity.”

Last year, former San Francisco 49ers player Colin Kaepernick, kneeled during the national anthem to bring attention to racial injustice. On Saturday September 23, 2017, in a series of tweets, President Trump demonstrated his displeasure with NFL players who do not stand during the national anthem and called for their termination.  In response to President Trump’s comments, NFL players across the country have been “taking a knee,” locking arms or staying in the locker room during the national anthem.  These demonstrations have generated a lot of discussion about whether a private employer can limit an employee’s speech and political activity in the workplace.

Although the right to freedom of speech is fundamental, it is not absolute. The First Amendment prohibits the government from interfering with an individual’s freedom of speech and religion; however it does not protect private-sector employees.  There is a common misconception that freedom of speech applies to anything and everything an individual has to say, but the First Amendment protections only apply in cases of government interference.

Private-sector employees are typically employed at-will, meaning that their employers can fire them at any time for any reason, with or without cause. There are many exceptions to the employment at-will doctrine, but the First Amendment is not one of them.  As a result, as a general matter, a private sector employer may discipline or even terminate an at-will employee for statements made both inside and outside of the workplace, including statements made on social media posts, blog posts, political opinions, t-shirts, and bumper stickers.  But the employer’s right has limits.  Under federal labor laws, an employer cannot discipline or fire an employee for speech that involves “concerted activities,” such as discussing the terms and conditions of employment, wearing a union shirt, discussing wages, and/or forming a union.

Even though the First Amendment does not apply to private workplaces, employers should be careful when regulating speech. Although an employer may have a right to regulate employee speech on political or social issues, doing so may have a detrimental effect on the workplace.  And, there are times when employers have a duty to regulate employee speech.  For example, employers have a responsibility to maintain a work environment that does not violate laws prohibiting discrimination and harassment, or create a hostile environment.  Employers often have to investigate and act in response to speech in the workplace, and even outside the workplace, that creates or contributes to a hostile work environment from the standpoint of race, sex and other protected characteristics.

Employers should consult a labor and employment attorney if they have any questions about what speech is appropriate to regulate, and for assistance in establishing policies and procedures that govern speech in the workplace.

Renee Manson

Fighting Negative On-Line Reviews by Ex-Employees

Q.  A former employee has posted a negative review about our company on a social media website. Is there anything we can do about it?

A.  While social media is a powerful tool for promoting your company’s brand, negative reviews can be equally powerful in affecting the company’s reputation. When the negative review is by an employee or former employee, the review is particularly galling.

Unfortunately, employers have little recourse. While many employees have social media policies prohibiting employees from commenting about the company, the NLRB does not allow such policies to chill an employee’s ability to complain about the terms and conditions of employment on social media.  Moreover, the company’s ability to control social media activity ceases once the employee leaves the company or is terminated.

But there are a few things you can do. First, be sure to set an alert so that you are aware of all comments made about the company online.

If the post is made by a current employee, use this as a red flag that something may be amiss about the employment relationship. Meet with the employee and give him or her a chance to air his or her concerns.  Then ask the employee if he or she would be willing to take down the post and address the issue internally instead.

If you are offering a severance package to a departing employee, consider adding a nondisparagement clause to any separation agreement that would prohibit the former employee from making negative comments or otherwise denigrating the company’s reputation. Consider paying the severance over time, rather than in a lump sum, to create a disincentive for the former employee to violate the nondisparagement clause.

Assuming there was no written agreement and it is a former employee who is doing the negative posting, you will have to consider whether it makes more sense to ignore the post or respond to it. If you do choose to respond, be careful not to personally attack the individual, but instead focus on the comment and set the record straight.  While it is not a battle easily won, depending on how damaging the post is, you may also consider speaking with legal counsel about the possibility of an action for defamation.  Moreover, if the negative comment also reveals company trade secrets, you will need to analyze the situation with your counsel and consider sending a cease and desist letter and filing suit.

Finally, it is always best to take a proactive approach. Remind employees of the powerful impact social media can have on your business.  Encourage your employees to become a “brand ambassador” and  “like” the company on social media and share company achievements.  After all, a negative comment will have much less of an impact if it is surrounded by lots of positive, reputation-enhancing messages in cyberspace.

–Tracey E. Diamond