A recent NLRB decision caused some ripples around the web, and I am a little bit surprised by the commotion. The decision appears to have been a fairly straight forward reiteration of precedent that is at least a decade old.
The decision is Banner Estrella Medical Center, 358 NLRB No. 93 (2012). The cause of the controversy is the Board's ruling that the employer violated the NLRA through a policy that prohibited employee discussions about matters the employer was investigating. After an employee made a complaint to the employer--pursuant to the employer's blanket policy--he was then forbidden from discussing the subject of the complaint with other employees. Citing a similar decision it made last year in Hyundai America Shipping Agency, 357 NLRB No. 80, slip op. at 15 (2011), the Board stated
To justify a prohibition on employee discussion of ongoing investigations, an employer must show that it has a legitimate business justification that outweighs employees’ Section 7 rights.This seems very similar to the Board's reasoning in Caesar’s Palace, 336 NLRB 271, 272 (2001)
The issue is whether the interests of the Respondent’s employees in discussing this aspect of their terms and conditions of employment outweighs the Respondent’s asserted legitimate and substantial business justifications.In Caesar's Palace, the employer required silence among employees about an ongoing drug-investigation. The Board held that the employer's interest in a safe investigation outweighed the employees' interest in discussing a workplace condition.
In Phoenix Transit Systems, 337 NLRB 510 (2002), the Board found that the employer violated the NLRA by maintaining a confidentiality rule which prohibited employees from discussing their sexual harassment complaints among themselves.
In Hyundai America Shipping Agency, 357 NLRB No. 80, slip op. at 15 (2011) where managers "routinely instruct[ed] employees involved in investigations not to talk with other employees about the substance of those investigations", the employer's policy was considered unlawful.
Nothing then is surprising about the Board's conclusion in Banner Estrella where the employer had a blanket policy of instructing employees to refrain from discussing the subject matter of complaints while they were being investigated.
And the underlying principle hardly seems controversial. These are the main points as I see them:
1. Under Section 7 employees have the right to discuss terms and conditions of employment.
2. The terms and conditions of employment that employees have the right to discuss include issues such as whether a manager is sexually harassing an employee(s) and whether certain employees are being treated differently than other employees.
3. Employers will at times seek to investigate controversies surrounding the terms and conditions of employment.
4. If employers tell employees that they may not discuss the controversies while they are being investigated, they have necessarily infringed on the employees' Section 7 rights.
5. Any infringement on Section 7 rights must be justified.
6. Some workplace controversies require a high need of confidentiality to protect the employers' interests and the witnesses' interest. For instance an employer investigating a drug ring in its facility has an interest in protecting its witnesses from criminal retribution.
7. Some workplace controversies do not require a high degree of confidentiality to protect an employer's or witnesses' interest. For example an employer investigating a matter that is mostly documented through email or caught on surveillance footage may not fear the effects of collusion as much as in purely "he said, she said" investigations.
8. Requiring employees to refrain from speaking to other employees about the subject of an investigation may work against the employees' interests because it may stop them from obtaining helpful information or generating a concerted protest.
9. Some balancing of the competing interests must be taken into consideration before stopping employees from discussing workplace conditions.