Can I be disciplined for sending an email asking people to support my favorite charity?

Question:

I work in the sales department of a large insurance company. In my free time, I volunteer at a local shelter for battered women and their families. My friends at work are always interested in hearing about the shelter's mission and activities. So, when the shelter's end-of-year fundraising email arrived, I forwarded it to everyone in the office. I figured that anyone who was interested would open it and see what we do, and everyone else could just delete it. But my manager gave me a verbal warning for sending the email. He said it violates the company's policy prohibiting employees from sending out solicitations for outside causes or groups. Is this legal? Why would the company care if I send around an email about a worthy cause?

Answer:

Yes, it is legal for your employer to ban employees from using the company's email system to solicit donations for outside groups, including charitable groups that do good work in the community. Your employer is also free to enforce its policy through discipline, if it chooses.

From a practical perspective, it's easy to see why an employer might want to adopt this type of policy. After all, one employee's worthy cause is another employee's annoyance -- or worse. If, for example, your local shelter were affiliated with a religious group, employees who don't share those religious beliefs might feel offended by your email. And, your coworkers might feel pressured to donate or show an interest in the shelter. This can be a particular problem if you supervise others, who might feel that they must make a donation to stay on your good side at work.

If you multiply your email by the number of employees at your company, you'll see another practical problem with allowing employees to solicit electronically. Messages about bake sales, silent auctions, cookie drives, holiday wrapping paper sales, and gala events could start to crowd employee mailboxes that should be reserved primarily for business-related communications.

From a legal perspective, employers are free to place a variety of restrictions on employee use of the company's email system. Until very recently, these restrictions could also be used by employers to block union-related messages. The National Labor Relations Board, the federal government agency that enforces labor laws, had previously said that an employer could place a total ban on solicitation for outside organizations, which included emails about unions and union matters. As long as the employer enforced this policy for all solicitations, and didn't just single out union-related messages for discipline, this was perfectly legal.

This rule was recently overturned. Now, employers must allow employees to use their email system to discuss union matters and workplace concerns about the terms and conditions of their employment, as long as they do so outside of regular work hours. Because your message didn't fit into this protected category, this rule change won't apply to you. However, it may eventually lead employers to dump their "no solicitation" policies, if their true purpose in adopting those policies was to crack down on union-related messages. And, employers that keep these policies will have to change them to make clear that they don't apply to messages about union and labor matters.

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