In a ruling that businesses are sure to welcome, a court has ruled that employers can prevent employees from wearing clothing that criticizes the company.
A Washington, D.C., federal appeals court reversed the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) 2011 ruling that AT&T was wrong to discipline employees who wore anti-AT&T shirts to service calls in customers’ homes.
Originally, the NLRB ruled that the employees’ right to wear the shirts outweighed AT&T’s right to protect its reputation. The ruling tied the hands of employers to manage their own reputations in crucial ways. For example, under the ruling, employees who dealt directly with the public could express their dissatisfaction with management through messages on their clothing. Additionally, employers could no longer prohibit union messages on employees’ apparel.
However, the appeals court disagreed, citing the need for common sense in legal decisions. The recent decision pointed out that banning union messages has always been allowed when the messages can reasonably be expected to damage customer relationships or the company’s image.
In the AT&T case, the company disciplined service technicians for wearing shirts that identified them as prisoners of AT&T, even bearing an inmate number on the front. The NLRB ruling found that AT&T failed to show enough evidence that the shirts damaged the company’s relationships with customers.
The appeals court sided with the lone dissenting member of the NLRB, agreeing that it was unreasonable to require AT&T to prove actual harm from the shirts. Additionally, it ruled that the banned shirt was different from other casual shirts that the company permitted. The court also agreed that a shirt that looked from the front like a prison-issued garment was particularly inappropriate in a community that had recently experienced a violent home invasion by an escaped prisoner.
The new ruling is a step in the right direction, but employers should be cautious about managing employee clothing. The NLRB has ignored circuit court rulings that opposed them in the past. Until the Supreme Court weighs in on the matter, employers who choose to lock horns with the NBLR should be prepared to take their battle to court.
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