On July 30, 2012, the NLRB (“Board”) issued a decision in Banner Health System dba Estrella Medical Center, 358 NLRB No. 93 holding, among other things, that the employer violated Section 8(a)(1) (which prohibits employers from interfering, restraining or coercing employees in the exercise of their rights), by restricting employees from discussing any complaint that was then the subject of an ongoing internal investigation.

To minimize the impact of such a confidentiality mandate on employees’ Section 7 rights, the Board found that an employer must make an individualized determination in each case that its “legitimate business justification” outweighed the employee’s rights to protected concerted activity in discussing workplace issues.  In Banner Health, the employer did not carry its burden to show a legitimate business justification because it failed to make a particularized showing that:

Witnesses were in need of protection;

Evidence was in danger of being destroyed;

Testimony was in danger of being fabricated; or

A cover-up must be prevented.

The Board concluded that the employer’s one-size-fits-all rule, prohibiting employees from engaging in any discussion of ongoing internal investigations, clearly failed to meet these requirements.

More recently, the NLRB’s Office of the General Counsel clarified the limits of how such policies could be drafted without running afoul of Section 7 in an advice memorandum released on April 24, 2013 (dated January 29, 2013).   The Region had submitted Verso Paper, Case 30-CA-089350 (January 29, 2013) to the Office of the General Counsel for advice regarding the confidentiality rule at issue and whether it unlawfully interfered with employees’ Section 7 rights.  Specifically, the Verso Code of Conduct contained this provision prohibiting employees from discussing ongoing internal investigations:

Verso has a compelling interest in protecting the integrity of its investigations.  In every investigation, Verso has a strong desire to protect witnesses from harassment, intimidation and retaliation, to keep evidence from being destroyed, to ensure that testimony is not fabricated, and to prevent a cover-up.  To assist Verso in achieving these objectives, we must maintain the investigation and our role in it in strict confidence.  If we do not maintain such confidentiality, we may be subject to disciplinary action up to and including immediate termination.

Reiterating that employees have a Section 7 right to discuss disciplinary investigations of their co-workers, the General Counsel’s Office found that the Verso Paper provision did not allow for a case-by-case analysis of whether or not the employer’s business justification for the restriction outweighed the employees’ Section 7 rights as required by Banner Health.  According to the General Counsel’s Office, the employer may establish this by presenting facts specific to a given investigation that give rise to a legitimate and substantial business justification for imposing confidentiality restrictions.

However, in footnote 7 of its advice, the General Counsel’s Office, after noting that the first two sentences of the Verso Paper rule lawfully set forth the employer’s interest in protecting the integrity of its investigations, surprisingly put forward a modified version of the remainder of the Verso Paper provision that it said would pass muster under Banner Health:

Verso may decide in some circumstances that in order to achieve these objectives, we must maintain the investigation and our role in it in strict confidence.  If Verso reasonably imposes such a requirement and we do not maintain such confidentiality, we may be subject to disciplinary action up to and including immediate termination.

Although this guidance is not binding, combining this language above with the first two sentences of the Verso Paper provision could certainly strengthen an employer’s argument that its intent was not to violate an employee’s Section 7 rights, but rather, to lawfully put employees on notice that if the employer “reasonably” imposes a confidentiality requirement, they must abide by it or face discipline.  However, employers must remain mindful that using a provision like this suggested does not obviate the need for the employer to engage in the particularized case-by-case determination of its substantial and legitimate business need that would permit it to impose confidentiality restrictions on the investigation.