In December 2007, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled to uphold a policy that prohibited employees from using work-place e-mail systems “for non-job-related solicitations” (Lavin, Dimichele and Wasserstrom, 2008, p. 1). This happened after an employee of the Register-Guard, a newspaper based in Oregon, sought the NLRB’s direction regarding warning letters she had received from her employer. The employee, Suzi Prozanski, had on three occasions used the work email to communicate labor union-related issues with her fellow employees. Ms. Prozanski was convinced that her employer had gone against the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) by issuing her with the warning letters.
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Communication Problems in the Register-Guard
Reviewing the case, several communication problems are apparent:
- There was lack of clarity in the Communications Systems Policy (CSP) used by the Register-Guard: The CSP stated that “communication systems are not to be used for commercial ventures, religious or political causes, outside organization, or other non-job-related solicitations”. Ms. Prozanki could easily have argued that being a union membership is directly linked to being an employee. As such she could have interpreted this to mean that sending the three emails was not in violation of the CSP.
- Lack of clarity on how to treat e-mail communication: NLRB board members were not certain on whether to treat e-mail communications in a similar manner to face-to-face communication, or as communication equipment similar to bulletin boards or telephones. While employees were free to engage others for whatever reasons using face-to-face communication in the non-working hours, NLRB had ruled that “employees have no statutory right to use an employer’s equipment or media” in activities meant to improve their working conditions.
Based on the above problems, my communication objectives in this section include the need for clarity in communication, and a clear definition of e-mail as a communication tool in the contemporary workplace.
- Confusion brought about by multiple ‘rules’ contained in different communications. Since Prozanski was an employee of the Register-Guard, NLRB had to consider the provisions of the CSP. The board members had to consider Prozanki’s position in regard to NLRA section 7, which gave employees the right to engage in activities meant to improve their positions in the workplace. The NLRB also had a historical position regarding employee’s use of an employer’s equipment for purposes of section seven. To a layman employee, all these rules and provisions would be hard to comprehend and follow, especially if no legal directive is offered.
- Unclear policies on e-mail use in the workplace: It is clear that the Register-Guard has prohibited non-work-related e-mails from being sent using the company’s e-mail system. However, the scope of the prohibition is not clear, not even to the NLRB.
- The NLRB needs to consider all the provisions contained in the NLRA as well as those contained in Register-Guard’s CSP. In addition, it would also need to consider its historical position regarding employees’ rights, in order to come with an all-inclusive solution.
- The NLRB needs to encourage all employers to develop clear and succinct e-mail use policies, which should be communicated to all employees. With increased use of e-mails in the workplace, employers need to clearly define e-mail as a distinct communication tool, and establish rules and policies regarding its use.
- Since communication is all about creating meaning between two people or parties, NLRB needs to encourage employers to develop policies that are well understood by the employees. If need be, the employers should create forums where employees seek understanding regarding unclear policies communicated to them.
Although it is not stated whether Register-Guard had tried to establish contact with Ms. Prozanki before sending her the warning letters, the management in the publishing company should have tried to communicate to her on a face-to-face basis. By using this approach, the Register-Guard management would have created a cohesive and personal communication with Ms. Prozanki about e-mail use in the workplace. This would have made it easier for both sides to clarify issues and concerns that they might have had. This means that the warning letters should have been the next action against Ms. Prozanki, if she still went ahead and solicited labor union actions using the company’s e-mail, despite the face-to- face communication between her and the Register-Guard’s management.
Communication skills reflected in the NLRB case
In addition to Ms. Prozanki using the Register- Guard e-mail system to communicate labor union issues to her fellow employees, Lavin et al. (2008) also note that the firm had put the e-mail system in place in order to enhance communication in the workplace. Analyzing e-mail communication reveals that its not only fast, it is effective and can be used to communicate to multiple recipients. E-mails can also be saved for future reference.
The CSP used by Register-Guard was in statement form. The warning letters sent to Ms. Prozanki were also in form of written communication. Written communication allows for detailed information to be communicated. It is also important for future reference.
Face to Face communication
This is reflected in the protracted debate undertaken by board members when considering the different facts presented in the Guard-Prozanki case. In my analysis, face-to-face communication has both shortcomings and advantages. This type of communication is ideal in cases where real-time feedback is needed, where future reference is not needed, and where clarification on issues is needed.
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This is reflected by Ms. Prozanki’s decision to seek NLRBs intervention regarding the warning letters. Through intra-communication, Ms. Prozanki must have analyzed both the CSP and section 7 of the NLRA, and decided that she did not deserve the warning letters sent to her. This explains why she sought NLRB’s intervention on the matter.
Values are not only concepts that firms build their culture on, they are also principles that resonate in people’s minds and emotions. By communicating the values of the Guard to Ms. Prozanki, the manager who handled her case would have had a chance to make her understand why she could not continue using work e-mail for Union-related activities. Moreover, by communicating the firm’s value to Ms. Prozanki, the manager could have had a chance to build consensus with her.
Communication is invention
The evolving nature of communication indicates that firms need to adopt more innovative ways of handling the same. The manager in Register-Guard could, for instance, have considered the versatile nature of e-mail communication before developing the CSP. This would have enabled him to develop a more detailed and clear communication policy for use in the workplace.
Leader’s job in situations where “values compete and various roles are in tension”
A manager in any firm must have a deeper understanding of what needs to be done in every situation. This not only enables him to prioritize competing tasks, but also equips him with the knowledge necessary to amicably resolve conflict in the workplace. In the Register-Guard case, the manager should have known that, just as the employer had rights to dictate how the communication equipment were to be used, the employees too had rights as provided by section 7 of the NLRA.
Psychological and physical barriers to communication
Psychological barriers refer to presumptions, perception or attitudes that prevent effective communication from taking place. In the Register-Guard case, the manager may have assumed that all company employees had a clear understanding of the CSP. On the other hand, Ms. Prozanki could have assumed that union activities were not prohibited since the CSP does not make a direct statement on the matter. Recognizing the presence of loopholes in the CSP, the manager could have acted in good time to clarify matters in order to avoid any misunderstanding between the company and the employees. Physical barriers refer to material barriers that hinder effective communication. Working in different office, at different hours are such barriers. To overcome them, the manager would have made a deliberate action to speak to Ms. Prozanki, especially if he wanted to speak to her on a face-to-face basis.
The importance of feedback
Feedback makes the communication cycle complete. Without feedback, a communicator would not know whether his information was received and understood by the intended recipient. In the Register-Guard case, the manager could have engaged employees regarding their interpretations of the CSP. Based on the responses, he would have clarified any issues that the employee had misunderstood, and also sealed any loopholes revealed by their feedback.
Effective communication can only take place if the receiver gets the message that the sender intended. This means that effective communication has to be clear in order to avoid misinterpretations. In Register-Guard, the CSP contained measures that employees in the firm had to avoid while using workplace e-mail. However, some omissions in the policy were clearly interpreted by Ms. Prozanki to mean that she could use the workplace email to communicate information relating to union activities to her fellow employees. The fact that she went ahead to seek NLRBs intervention after she was issued with warning letters is a clear indication that there was a communication breakdown between Register-Guard and its employee. As such, I would recommend a review of the CSP to ensure that it sets a clear and direct policy on e-mail use in the firm in order to avoid such occurrences in future.
Lavin, H., DiMichele, E., & Wasserstrom, J. (2008). NLRB upholds employer’s e-mail policy prohibiting “non-job” related solicitations. Employee Relations Law Journal 34(1), 88-93.