The answer to that question is a qualified “maybe” or “maybe not.” Generally it is a given that an employer can control, if they want, when an employee can leave a work station. However, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has offered a different interpretation that restricts an employer’s ability to have this restriction.
Watch your language
The National Labor Relations Act gives covered employees the right to engage in protected concerted activity, and the NLRB has been very active the last several years in pointing out how employers might interfere with these activities. According to attorney Valerie Kahn, of Dinker, Biddle and Reath LLP, employers have to be careful how they inform employees of restrictions they may have in leaving their workstations. Using language in a policy that appears to infringe on a protected right will be found to be a violation of the NLRA. She suggests that prohibitions against leaving work for a strike or a work stoppage would not be the appropriate language to use. Indeed Section 7 of the NLRA specifically allows participation in such activity.
What you can say
Naturally it is in the best interest of the company not to have employees just walk away from their workstation. In fact, in many situations it may be critical, such as in safety situations or patient care. Imagine firefighters walking away in a labor dispute while in the middle of battling a building fire. Kahn suggests that the NLRB does allow employers to have a policy that says “Leaving Company property without permission may result in discharge” or Employees cannot leave “Company premises during working shift without the permission of management.”
Naturally, as Kahn points out, the context of a situation is very important. As an employer you certainly want to indeed that unsafe conditions are not left and unsafe practices are not occurring as the result of employees leaving their workstations.
Be careful of the language you use otherwise the NLRB may make you an example of their growing influence on the behavior of employees and employers in the workplace.
By the way, lest you think “I don’t have a union, I don’t have to pay attention to this” you are mistaken. The NLRA is specifically meant to cover non-union employers and protect the rights of employees.
Photo courtesy of hin255