The “suggestion box” seemingly goes back to the dawn of time. In 2015, the cardboard carton, manila folder, or plastic shelf physically attached to the outside of the door has been replaced by the virtual, online suggestion box. As Wikipedia describes it:
“The physical box, as a post box, was replaced by electronic places or addresses; like postal service systems replaced, in the 2000s, by e-mail systems. But the traditional function, “obtaining additional comments, questions, and requests,” still exists as demand: collecting information with input from customers and patrons of a particular organization, or means for garnering employee input.”
What employer doesn’t want to better the company? Suggestion boxes are often a great way to garner employee input, as they are generally quick, easy, inexpensive, and mostly effective. Yet, they also can be fraught with suggestions that are worthless or even borderline inappropriate. Social media has dramatically impacted the suggestion process as well, with employers affirmatively creating internal portals and web sites for the specific purpose of allowing employees to offer suggestions on a wide variety of issues relating to the company. We have, thus, transitioned from the physical to the virtual and social, and from the suggestion “box” to the much grander suggestion “program.”
When you create your virtual suggestion program, it is important that you give some thought to how you are going to structure it, who will be responsible for administering it, how you will solicit your suggestions, and what you will do with the suggestions you receive. To be more specific, there are 5 primary areas you should consider:
- Wage and Hour Issues. Non-exempt employees must be paid for all time spent actually working, even perhaps under circumstances when they were not expressly authorized to do so. Does your program affirmatively request that certain employees make or solicit suggestions? Under current (federal) DOL guidelines, there is a line drawn between whether the non-exempt employee is developing suggestions during non-working time on his or her own, or has been asked or permitted to work on making or soliciting suggestions.
- NLRB Issues (yes, here too). There may be “suggestions” that you find offensive for a variety of reasons, yet you must be cautious not to take adverse action if the suggestion can be considered “protected concerted activity” under the law. In addition, the NLRB has spilled a fair amount of ink on whether a joint employer-employee suggestion committee (if that is how you are structuring your suggestion program) is unlawful because the committee is effectively an employer-dominated labor organization.
- Ownership Issues. You should consider who owns the idea and whether the employee must be compensated or rewarded for an accepted suggestion.
- Trade Secret Issues. It is not outside the realm of possibility that suggestions and the dialogue that follows may disclose confidential plans in development, or other trade secret or proprietary information of your company. It may be inadvertent, and may even occur if the program is designed for “internal eyes” only.
- Other Workplace Conduct Issues. As suggested above, an online suggestion program will not likely be limited to the mere making of suggestions, but in some cases can offer a forum for comments and continuing dialogue about the suggestions. It is certainly not a stretch to imagine such communications, like those made in person, potentially spiraling into statements or conduct that would violate your company’s other policies addressing harassment, discrimination, bullying, and violence in the workplace.
Employer Take Away: What should you as an employer take away from this development?
Like so many issues addressed in this blog, the takeaway should certainly not be that your company cannot or should not implement an online suggestion box or program to take advantage of the benefits that social media offers for employee input and participation. The takeaway is, as I always say, that you just need to consider the relevant issues and give thought to what you are doing.
Indeed, the suggestion box, suggestion program, open-door policy and any other similar nomenclature used for the very salutary purpose of having open communication with your employees and making them feel as if their ideas are being heard, can be a very good thing. But sometimes “no good deed goes unpunished,” which is where the employment lawyers come in to assist your benevolent intentions. Better to take the time to do it right and appropriately, than to just do it.