The National Labor Relations Board Says Your Severance Agreements May Violate Federal Law
The swinging pendulum at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or the Board) continues, with the current Board overruling cases that were decided during the Trump administration (some of which overruled precedent from the Obama administration). In the recently decided case McLaren Macomb (372 NLRB No. 58), the NLRB set its sights on confidentiality and non-disparagement provisions in severance agreements. All employers – including those without unions – should take note of and are affected by this latest decision.
In McLaren, the NLRB found that the employer violated the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA or the Act) by presenting employees with a severance agreement containing confidentiality and non-disparagement provisions that, according to the Board, restricted employee rights under the Act. Importantly, the Board’s decision in McLaren Macomb applies only to severance agreements presented to nonmanagerial employees. The NLRA defines a “supervisor” (i.e., a manager) by considering factors that include, but are not limited to: whether the employee has authority to hire, fire, discipline, or responsibly direct the work of other employees.
The Board found the non-disparagement provision at issue violated employees’ NLRA Section 7 rights because “[p]ublic statements by employees about the workplace are central to the exercise of employee rights under the Act.” Similarly, the Board found that the confidentiality provision at issue violated employees’ Section 7 rights because it precluded employees from “disclosing even the existence of an unlawful provision contained in the agreement,” which, the Board argued, could persuade employees from filing unfair labor practice charges or assisting the NLRB in an investigation. The Board also determined the confidentiality provision to be unlawful because it prohibited employees from discussing the severance agreement with current or former coworkers, including those who may receive similar agreements, union representatives or other employees seeking to form a union.
WHAT SHOULD EMPLOYERS DO IN THE WAKE OF THE MCLAREN DECISION?
The McLaren decision makes clear that the Board will closely scrutinize whether the language of severance agreements restricts employees’ NLRA rights. Given this decision, employers should consider taking one or more of the following actions to minimize risk when offering severance agreements with confidentiality and non-disparagement provisions to non-supervisory employees:
- Assess the value of including confidentiality and non-disparagement clauses in the agreement at all and consider whether such clauses can be narrowly tailored so as not to violate employee rights under the NLRA.
- If a severance agreement contains confidentiality and non-disparagement clauses that might be interpreted as restricting employee rights, those restrictions should be as narrow as possible and make explicit that the agreement is not intended to preclude employees from asserting their rights under the NLRA.
- If including confidentiality and non-disparagement provisions, be sure to include “severability” language so that, even if a court or the Board ultimately finds these clause to be unlawful, the remainder of agreement will be enforceable.
Employers should consult with experienced human resources professionals and/or labor and employment counsel with any questions regarding the use of severance agreements with departing employees. For all MEA members, the Hotline is available to provide this assistance. For MEA Essential and Premier members, a Member Legal Services attorney is available for additional consultation.
Amy G. McAndrew, Esquire
Director of Legal and Compliance Services
MidAtlantic Employers' Association