A reader writes:
Can my company tell me on one hand that I should not go out to dinner with coworkers and then force me to attend team dinners after a 3-hour team meeting? Can I say no to attending?
Can my company tell me that I cannot go out to eat with co-workers?
You can’t say no to attending team dinners if your employer requires them. (Well, you could say no, but they could fire you for refusing.) However, they do need to pay you for this time if you’re non-exempt.
However, what’s their rationale for telling you that you can’t go out to dinner with coworkers? Depending on the answer to that, there’s a good chance that’s illegal.
Times when they could tell you not to dine with coworkers:
* Dinnertime falls during work, and they want to stagger your breaks rather than having a bunch of you gone at once.
* The dinner is actually a date, and you’re the date’s manager.
* The nature of your job is one that gives them legal cover for controlling who you socialize with. For instance, there was a case a while ago where a court ruled that it was legal for a company to prohibit security guards from socializing with other employees, because it could compromise security.
But absent a legitimate reason like these, they’re on very thin ice trying to prevent you from socializing with coworkers outside of work hours. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) prevents employers from interfering with employees discussing wages and working conditions with each other … and even if you weren’t talking about work at all at these dinners, a prohibition on them would likely be considered to have a chilling effect on your rights under the NLRA.
Bryan Cavanaugh, an employment lawyer in Missouri, was kind enough to weigh in on this question and says:
Some states, including New York and California, have laws that explicitly protect an employee’s lawful activities off the clock and off the employer’s premises. However, barring that type of law, there is no direct answer. From a management standpoint, I share your reaction that the directive is bizarre. I’d be curious about the back story. Does the manager consider these co-workers a bad influence on the employee and is instructing the employee not to hang out with those “bad seeds,” like a parent would? Perhaps there is a more legitimate, business-related reason for the directive, such as the manager is encouraging the employee to get involved with industry groups, or to be networking or entertaining clients in the evening instead of socializing with co-workers.
From a legal perspective, assuming we’re not in a state such as New York or California, the employer is opening itself up to liability, assuming this is truly a non-work related directive. If the employer is simply trying to control an employee’s private life or social life, then that directive could likely be an unfair labor practice under the National Labor Relations Act, as well as a violation of common law privacy laws.
You are right to be concerned about this directive violating the NLRA, which applies to all private sector employers except very small ones. While the employees would not necessarily be discussing workplace conditions and therefore engaging in “protected concerted activity,” the NLRB has been focusing more recently on whether policies on their face violate the NLRA by creating a “chilling effect” on concerted activity. The NLRA has found certain policies themselves violate Section 8 of the NLRA by creating a “chilling effect,” which means discouraging employees from engaging in protected concerted activity in the first place…
If the employer can point to a specific duty the employee is neglecting, such as failing to attend an evening networking event, or entertaining clients, then the employer may be able to prohibit this socialization. But for an employer to prohibit generally an employee from socializing with co-workers off the clock and off premises is dangerous and likely unlawful directive to an employee.
So there you have it. But I want to know more about your employer’s rationale for telling you not to eat with coworkers. Can you reply in the comments with more context?
P.S. If this all makes you wonder if it’s legal for an employer to ban dating among coworkers (aside from just manager-employee dating), the answer is yes. Employers have successfully argued they have a legitimate business interest in banning office dating, since it can cause all sorts of workplace issues that have nothing to do with the NLRA.