By: Daniel Finerty

On August 27, 2015, the National Labor Relations Board (Board) invalidated an employer’s confidentiality policy that was in place to maintain the integrity of its internal investigations. The Board determined both the original and revised confidentiality policies used by the Boeing Company unlawfully restrained employee rights to discuss the terms and conditions of their work and to engage in protected concerted activities under the National Labor Relations Act. However, the Board’s decision has clarified the muddy waters surrounding the effective use of confidentiality policies during internal investigations into sexual harassment, workplace threats and other employee misconduct.

Boeing’s original policy identified its interest in protecting the confidentiality of an internal investigation. It explained that such investigations typically dealt with “sensitive information and may be conducted under authorization of the Boeing Law Department.” As a result, the policy directed employees “not to discuss this case with any Boeing employee other than company employees who are investigating this issue or your union representative, if applicable.” The Board ruled that this policy potentially restrained employee speech. The Board rejected Boeing’s justifications, that the protected witnesses, victims, or employees from retaliation, harassment and rumors.

The Board also rejected Boeing’s revised confidentiality policy. In the revised policy, Boeing recommended that employees refrain from discussing an investigation. This slight change did not cure the Board’s initial concerns. Even the revised policy reasonably tended to inhibit employees’ rights to engage in activity protected by the NLRA.

A blanket confidentiality policy is unlikely to survive Board scrutiny regardless of whether or not it carves out discussions with a union representative. The Board has reaffirmed its position that “[e]mployees have a Section 7 right to discuss employer investigations with their coworkers.” To comply with the Board’s recent decisions, while protecting employees involved in an investigation, employer’s may want to consider:

  • Eliminating blanket confidentiality policies applicable to all investigations.
  • If an employer has specific reason to believe that any of the following circumstances may exist or arise during an investigation, a basis for an employer’s concern may be justified where:
    • Witnesses need protection;
    • Evidence is in danger of being destroyed;
    • Testimony is in danger of being fabricated; or,
    • There is a need to prevent a cover up.
  • If the documented concern(s) justify a restraint on employees’ right to discuss this particular investigation, consider narrowly-tailored confidentiality rules which meet the relevant circumstances and protect the integrity of the investigation without unreasonably limiting employees’ protected rights under the NLRA.
  • Consideration should be given to whether the need for confidentiality applies to all witnesses or only a limited group. All affected employees should be given a copy of the narrowly-tailored confidentiality policy and should be asked to sign an acknowledgement of receipt.

Tailoring any confidentiality restrictions to specific concerns that arise during a particular investigation is currently the best way to withstand Board scrutiny of those restrictions.

If you have questions about confidentiality policies, please contact Daniel Finerty at 414-226-4807, or any other Lindner & Marsack attorney at 414-273-3910.

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