Last week a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) administrative law judge ruled that AT&T Mobility interfered with employees’ labor rights with an overly broad privacy rule. The rule prohibited employees from recording any conversation without approval from the company’s legal department. In AT&T Mobility, LLC, NLRB Case No. 05-CA-178637 (April 25, 2017), the ALJ found that the rule set forth below violated Section 8(a)(1) of the National Labor Relations Act which prohibits employers from interfering with employees’ Section 7 rights:

Privacy of Communications

Employees may not record telephone or other conversations they have with their coworkers, managers or third parties unless such recordings are approved in advance by the Legal Department, required by the needs of the business, and fully comply with the law and any applicable company policy.

The rule was questioned by sales associate, Marcus Davis after he attended a termination notice meeting for another employee and recorded audio of the meeting without management’s prior knowledge. After the meeting, local area sales manager, Andrew Collings, contacted the human resources department for guidance. Collings then instructed the local store manager to retrieve the company owned phone, delete the 20 minute recording and coach Davis on the company policy. Davis challenged the rule and filed an unfair labor practice charge at the NLRB.

In defense of the rule, AT&T argued that the policy was in place to protect the privacy of customer information. The judge found that although AT&T has a pervasive and compelling interest in protecting customer information, when balanced against employees’ Section 7 rights, the rule is overbroad and in violation Section 8(a)(1) of the Act. Specifically, the judge noted that recent NLRB decisions had suggested that “protected conduct may include a number of things including recording evidence to preserve it for later use in administrative or judicial forums in employment-related actions,” and there were narrower ways for the employer to protect its legitimate interests without interfering with these employee rights. The judge also found that the employee was illegally threatened with disciplinary action, possibly termination, if he violated the privacy rule.

Accordingly, AT&T was ordered to rescind the rule and refrain from any action that would limit the exercise of employees’ Section 7 rights. It remains to be seen whether the company will comply now, or contest the decision before the NLRB itself. The order fits into the trend of NLRB decisions the last few years finding against work rules prohibiting photography and other forms of recording in the workplace. It does not entirely prohibit all rules limiting workplace recordings, but does reject broad rules containing a blanket ban on all workplace recordings.

Cross-posted at McGuireWoods’ Password Protected Data Privacy & Security News & Trends blog.