The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or Board) on July 30, 2012, held that a blanket rule prohibiting employees from discussing ongoing internal investigations – for example, of employee misconduct, harassment, or criminal conduct – violates the employees’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) absent “legitimate and substantial justification”.
In Banner Health System, the employer’s human resources consultant, as a matter of course, had asked employees involved in internal investigations not to discuss the investigation’s details, the employees’ roles or what had been said during the consultant’s interviews while the investigation continued. In particular, she had asked employee James Navarro, whom she had interviewed as a part of an insubordination investigation, to maintain his silence. Navarro then filed an unfair labor practice charge against the employer, alleging that the consultant’s request had violated his rights under Section 7 of the NLRA, which protects, among other things, communications between employees regarding terms and conditions of employment.
The NLRB found merit to the charge and issued a complaint, which went to hearing before one of the NLRB’s administrative law judges. The judge found the employer’s conduct not to have violated Navarro’s Section 7 rights because the consultant’s request had been justified by the employer’s concern with protecting the integrity of its insubordination investigation.
The NLRB reversed its judge’s decision on that point. It held that, in order for an employer to justify a prohibition against employee communications regarding ongoing investigation, the employer must demonstrate the existence of a “substantial business justification” that outweighs the employees’ Section 7 rights. And a general concern with protecting the integrity of an investigation, according to the Board, was not substantial enough to meet the bar.
The Board gave examples of justifications that might qualify as sufficiently substantial to outweigh employees’ Section 7 rights: If a witness needed protection; if the employer reasonably believed that evidence might be destroyed or fabricated; or if maintenance of silence was necessary to prevent a “cover-up.” Notably, the Board did not say that those three circumstances were examples only, rather than an exclusive list of potentially adequate justifications. Our best educated guess is that they are examples only.
We do not have to guess, however, that the NLRB would find a blanket prohibition against communication by employees among themselves during the course of an ongoing employer investigation to be unlawful. In fact, a requirement of such silence in any case the employer cannot show substantial business justification for it will be found by the Board to violate the employer’s workers’ Section 7 rights.
The Board’s decision is not without support by its own precedent. In the late 1980s, the NLRB had held that it was unlawful under Section 7 of the Act for an employer to direct an employee who complained of sexual harassment not to talk to anyone other than her supervisors about the matter. The Board found that “anyone” could include the employee’s union representatives and that such a prohibition ran afoul of the NLRA.
The Banner Health System decision, however, greatly expands that principle. Employers now must be careful whenever directing employees not to communicate among themselves about, or to maintain as “confidential” all matters related to, an internal investigation. Protection of the integrity of the investigation is not going to be a sufficiently substantial reason for imposing such a prohibition, and the burden will be on the employer to establish that it had a “substantial business justification” for the prohibition that outweighed its employees’ rights under Section 7 of the NLRA.
In the event you believe it necessary to maintain the confidentiality of an internal investigation, we suggest that you take several steps:
- First, make sure you are able to articulate a significant concern particular to the investigation that a failure by any witness to maintain confidentiality will result in serious, negative consequences. For instance, where employer, employee or third-party safety might be jeopardized, where a target of or participant in the investigation might become violent, where the target of or participant in the investigation might threaten or manipulate other witnesses, or where evidence might be destroyed or lost.
- Second, be clear to limit your request for confidentiality. Limit it explicitly to confidentiality of the interview conducted, the facts known to the individual, his or her impressions and opinions, the existence of the investigation, and other of its elements. Make clear that the confidentiality is to be maintained only during the pendency of the investigation, but not afterwards. And, if possible, articulate that the confidentiality is to be maintained not just among employees but also among friends and family members.
- Finally, do not threaten to discipline employees for breaches of confidentiality regarding the investigation at the time you communicate your confidentiality request, unless the investigation is one that clearly and “substantially” justifies such a threat.