06/09/2014 01:03 pm ET Updated Aug 09, 2014

Drawing the Line on Civility

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) requires most private employers to abide by the National Labor Relations Act. Very basically, Section 7 gives employees the right to organize and to engage in concerted activities for mutual aid, and the right to refrain from any such activities for the most part. Section 8 describes unfair labor practices of employers.

The NLRB conducts thousands of unfair labor practice investigations each year. A recent finding ruled it unlawful to require employees to refrain from negativity in the workplace.

Hills and Dales General Hospital was struggling in 2005. Departments were not cooperating with each other; "back-biting and back stabbing" were resulting in poor employee relationships. Patients and employees were finding other options for treatment and employment.

In 2006, the hospital formed employee teams to address several issues that had contributed to this unhealthy work environment. One outcome was a statement of values and performance. The teams circulated the idea and drafts among all employees several times for input. The Hospital's Values and Standards of Behavior policy was the result.

The policy covered a broad array of topics, including teamwork, attitude, respect, customer service and fun. The hospital communicated and integrated the new policy by having posters of the Values and Standards printed. Employees were asked (not required) to sign the framed posters which were displayed in the hospital. Employees also signed a copy for their personnel files; a human resource policy was established; failure to follow the policy could result in disciplinary action. The efforts to change the culture paid off for the hospital with improvement in staff recruitment and retention as well as patient satisfaction scores.

One woman was given a written warning for responding to a former employee's post on Facebook referring to her coworkers as "douche bags." Her complaint alleged violation of Section 8, restricting her Section 7 rights.

The NLRB concluded two behavioral expectations (teamwork and attitude) were an unlawful.

We will not make negative comments about our fellow team members and we will take every opportunity to speak well of each other.

We will not engage in or listen to negativity or gossip. We will recognize that listening without acting to stop it is the same as participating.

Team members in this case clearly included all employees, including managers. Having negative conversations about managers is protected since it is a working condition. The NLRB took issue with the broad term, "negativity" in the next standard.

Here's the line: The NLRB viewed "ethical" and "forbidding gossip" as narrow enough and appropriate, but "professional" and "negativity" as too broad. The hospital changed their policy and posted a required notice to all employees stating the hospital violated Federal labor law.

Changing a poor work environment is a gallant goal. This Hospital took steps and succeeded. Establishing behavioral expectations is part of the process of developing a civil work environment. Hills and Dales General Hospital teaches us the NLRB is policing employer rules and care is required to avoid broad and ambiguous language which may interfere with employee rights.

Employers need to take a look at Section 8 of the National Labor Relations Act and recognize it applies to them. Then develop a civility policy, if one doesn't exist. Inspect behavioral expectations in all your employee communications for broad and ambiguous language which may impact employees' rights to concerted activity. Provide specific examples of the defined expectations in your civility policy and handbook to maintain a healthy and respectful workplace.