Workplace complaints and investigations can polarize a workplace. If your company has to investigate sexual harassment, bullying, or other serious problems, chances are good that employees will be talking about it and choosing sides. Of course, some of this is inevitable: We’re only human, right? But employers often try to minimize the fallout — in lost productivity, damaged reputations, or even changed stories and manufactured evidence — by requiring confidentiality. Employees who are interviewed as part of an investigation are routinely told that they may not discuss the investigation with other employees and may not reveal the facts they learn during the interview.
In the past few months, however, a couple of government agencies have cautioned employers not to go too far in trying to stop employee discussions. First, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) weighed in. In the case of Banner Estrella Medical Center, an HR consultant asked employees who had made a complaint not to discuss the matter with coworkers while the investigation was ongoing. The NLRB found that this request violated employees’ rights to discuss the terms and conditions of employment with each other. Prohibiting employee discussions of an ongoing investigation is allowed only if the employer can show that it has a legitimate business justification outweighing the employees’ rights. For example, if a witness needed protection, evidence was in danger of being destroyed, testimony was in danger of being fabricated, or the employer needed to prevent a cover-up, the NLRB indicated that these facts could justify a confidentiality requirement. However, the requirement must be based on facts specific to the investigation, rather than a general, blanket approach to all investigations.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has also questioned broad confidentiality requirements. As Lorene Schaefer reports in a blog post, the Buffalo, New York, office of the EEOC sent an employer a letter about its confidentiality policy. The EEOC stated that threatening to discipline or fire employees who discussed a sexual harassment complaint with anyone was illegal retaliation. Discussing harassment complaints with others is a form of “protected opposition” to illegal practices under Title VII. The letter also indicated that employees subject to such a confidentiality rule might believe they could be disciplined or fired for discussing harassment with the EEOC.
So what should employers do, in light of these opinions? It appears that blanket “gag orders” might create some risk going forward. However, a more limited confidentiality rule (for example, one that asks employees not to discuss what is said in the actual investigative interviews, as opposed to the underlying facts) could still pass muster. And, if you have specific concerns, based on the facts of the case, about falsification of evidence or witnesses talking to each other to “get their stories straight,” the NLRB opinion would still allow a confidentiality requirement. However, there are still a lot of grey areas here.
What’s more clear: Employers should do what they can on their end to maintain confidentiality. This includes, for example, revealing only the facts necessary to conduct a thorough interview. The accused employee must be told all of the allegations, but not every witness will need to hear the details. Employers should also take this as yet another cue to be speedy in conducting the investigation. The quicker a complaint is investigated and laid to rest, the less time there is for workplace chatter to do damage.