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Hell, Yeah, You Can Bitch on the Job!

Vivia Chen

May 18, 2016

Angry-child-Article-201605171025

This makes my day: Employers can no longer tell employees to be positive on the job.

That's right, workers have a perfect right to be gloomy, difficult and negative—and employers can't do a damn thing about it. Grumps of the world unite!

This bolt of joy comes from a recent National Labor Relation Board ruling. (Can you believe I'm excited about an NLRB ruling?) At issue was a section from T-Mobile USA, Inc.'s employee handbook, which reads, in part:

Employees are expected to maintain a positive work environment by communicating in a manner that is conducive to effective working relationships with internal and external customers, clients, co-workers, and management.

As corporate nonsense goes, this passage seems fairly innocuous. It's not forcing people to chant the corporate anthem every morning. Basically, it's telling people to behave in a civil fashion. But that's not how the NLRB views it. (The plaintiffs are Communications Workers of America, T-Mobile workers' union.) The ruling says:

We find that employees would reasonably construe the rule to restrict potentially controversial or contentious communications and discussions, including those protected by Section 7 of the NLRA, out of ear that the employer would deem them to be inconsistent with a 'positive work environment.'

In a nutshell, the NLRB finds that the "positive work environment" provision to be ambiguous, posing hindrances to employees who might be interested in unionizing. Discussions about union activities, the ruling notes, are often controversial and contentious.

I'm not a raving union type, but I'm all for healthy dosages of negativity and dissent at the workplace. Oftentimes, the freedom to be cynical about your work is one of the best things about a job. Imagine how truly dreary and oppressive it would be if you weren't able to flaunt your bad attitude!

Take working as an associate in Big Law: I don't have to tell you that the job is pressured, contentious and soul-draining. Unless they're liars or under heavy sedation, most associates can't possibly be all that positive about their work. They usually have a litany of complaints—and that's even true for those who actually like being a lawyer.

But will this ruling about phone company employees affect those hoity-toity associates in Big Law? Yes, says Gerald Lutkus, a labor employment partner at Barnes & Thornburg, who's written about the case for The National Law Review. "Lawyers are employees, subject to the Act," he says. Although he says he's not sure how many law firms exhort their employees to be "positive," Lutkus notes that it's quite common to find terms like "teamwork" and "professional conduct" in employee handbooks. His advice to management: "It's okay to use that kind of language if [the activity] is client-facing, but it's a problem when it's directed at interactions between co-workers and workers and management."

In other words: Keep on bitchn'. It's your damn right.

vchen@alm.com

Related post: Teamwork Sucks for Women

 

“[w]e find that employees would reasonably construe the rule to restrict potentially controversial or contentious communications and discussions, - See more at: http://www.natlawreview.com/article/nlrb-ruling-re-t-mobile-usa-you-can-t-make-me-be-positive#sthash.Sw4pdQoF.dpuf
In the board’s view, “[w]e find that employees would reasonably construe the rule to restrict potentially controversial or contentious communications and discussions, including those protected by Section 7 of the [NLRA], out of fear that the [employer] would deem them to be inconsistent with a ‘positive work environment.’” - See more at: http://www.natlawreview.com/article/nlrb-ruling-re-t-mobile-usa-you-can-t-make-me-be-positive#sthash.Sw4pdQoF.dpuf
“[w]e find that employees would reasonably construe the rule to restrict potentially controversial or contentious communications and discussions - See more at: http://www.natlawreview.com/article/nlrb-ruling-re-t-mobile-usa-you-can-t-make-me-be-positive#sthash.Sw4pdQoF.dpuf

Comments

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Sure you can bitch about your job, but it really doesn't do much for the job or your mental health. But it is clearly legal, so thanks for making this available to your readers. I love it when you talk labor law! And yes, lawyers (at least associates without supervisory responsibility) are protected by the NLRA, and can form unions. Free counsel to any who try!
Dan Bowling

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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