In July 2012, the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) ruled that a blanket policy requiring confidentiality during all internal workplace investigations violates employees’ rights under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”). The ruling represented a somewhat conflicting position, because one of the primary reasons confidentiality provisions were put in place was to protect employees and witnesses from retaliation.
In April, the NLRB released a memorandum that provides guidance on what it considers permissible confidentiality policies in workplace investigations. The NLRB’s memo suggests that, rather than using language that requires all investigations mandate confidentiality, policies should use the following language:
[Employer] may decide in some circumstances that in order to [protect the integrity of an investigation and to protect witnesses from harassment/retaliation], [employees] must maintain the investigation and [their] role in it in strict confidence. If [employer] reasonably imposes such a requirement and [employees] do not maintain such confidentiality, [employees] may be subject to disciplinary action up to and including immediate termination.
Confidentiality in employer investigations is key in order to protect both the employer and the employee. For that reason, a confidentiality provision that has actual force to it is necessary. However, at the same time, avoiding the scrutiny of the NLRB is also very important. For that reason, employers should consider reviewing and modifying their current policies to conform with the language suggested in the NLRB’s memorandum.
Furthermore, as we suggested in our prior coverage of this issue, before prohibiting employees from discussing pending investigations, employers must consider whether there is a real need for confidentiality based on risks of witness coercion, destruction of evidence, or other legitimate business concerns. Blanket prohibitions against discussion of internal investigations without this type of individualized assessment will likely violate Section 7 of the NLRA.