If you are a unionized employer, you almost certainly know that your employees have something called “Weingarten” rights, meaning that unionized employees may request (and must then receive) union representation as a condition of participation in any interview the employee reasonably believes may result in disciplinary action. The rule does not apply, however, where the employee could not reasonably believe that an interview may lead to discipline – e.g., run-of-the-mill shop-floor conversations, task-related instructions, training or corrections, or meetings in which previously determined discipline is actually imposed.
While Weingarten guarantees the presence of a union representative upon request, it does not give that representative the right to turn the interview into a full adversarial proceeding. The Supreme Court has ruled that employers still may investigate the issue at hand without interference, including the right to insist on hearing the employee’s account of the events rather than a sanitized version offered by the union representative. Still, recent National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decisions have begun to authorize expanded rights for the union representative, including the right to “remind” the suspect employee of his story by writing out answers to the employer’s questions, and the right to direct the employee not to respond until the employer “clarified” the questions to the union representative’s satisfaction.
No Truth + No Union Rep = No Worries
The NLRB recently went one step (or perhaps two or three) further in the case of E.I. Dupont de Nemours & Co., where an employee with a history of dishonesty was questioned on multiple occasions by managers about an alleged work-related injury he claimed to have suffered. The employer denied his requests for union representation and then fired him for providing what the NLRB described as “seemingly inconsistent and dishonest answers. . .” to the employer’s questions.
The employee and union filed an unfair labor practice charge against the company, which the NLRB upheld. Essentially, they assumed that a union representative would have protected the employee from acting contrary to his best interest and therefore, the employee should not be held accountable for dishonesty or intemperate behavior taking place during an unlawful investigative interview. The employee was ordered reinstated with full back pay.
This decision is particularly significant, and not just because of the NLRB’s attenuated reasoning. In previous cases, employees did not necessarily get their jobs back if the NLRB concluded that an employee was suspended or discharged for reasons unrelated to the denial of the employee’s Weingarten rights. Now, the NLRB seems to tell us that any misconduct during an unlawful interview will be considered out of bounds for disciplinary action, and that the employer will need to be able to prove that they would have discharged the employee even absent the purported interview-related misconduct.
It is now more important than ever that employers understand the protections afforded union employees and their representatives when planning to conduct workplace interviews. Employers must determine in advance whether the interview is or is not investigative, how they will respond to a demand for representation and how they will deal with the increasingly broad rights union representatives now have during interviews.