Workplace investigations are tough enough without the office grapevine gossiping about who did what to whom.

As such, it's standard practice to ask anyone who participates in an investigation to keep their mouths closed about what is discussed behind the closed doors.

A new ruling from the National Labor Relations (NLRB), however, suggests that a blanket "keep your mouth shut" mandate may be improper.

The Case behind the Concern

Like many investigators, the HR director for Banner Heath Systems asked workers involved in an in-house investigation to not talk about the investigation with their co-workers. However, James, one of the employees involved objected that this request violated the rights of employees to discuss the terms and conditions of their employment with their coworkers. The National Labor Relations Board sided with James, saying that blanket requests for confidentiality during an investigation are overly broad and might have a chilling effect on appropriate - and legally protected - communications.

So what's an Investigator to do?

This is a new ruling (July 30, 2012) and time will tell what this means from a practical standpoint. However, the NLRB's ruling does offer some guidance. First of all, investigators can still ask witnesses to keep quiet as long as they have a legitimate business interest in making the request.

This business interest must extend beyond the usual "we're trying to protect the integrity of the investigation" reasoning.

So what business interest is legitimate?

It is one that arises from that particular investigation.

Perhaps, for example, the facts you've uncovered so far suggest that the accused might try to intimidate witnesses if s/he learns they will be talking to an investigator.

Perhaps you haven't had a chance to retrieve some valuable evidence and are concerned that, if the investigation leaks out, it might be destroyed before you have a chance to do so.

Or perhaps you have reason to believe (again, based on what you've uncovered) that a group of witnesses might get together and "get their stories straight" before you have a chance to interview them individually.

In addition, when you do feel requests for privacy are warranted, limit the scope as much as possible. For instance, ask that the witnesses not discuss the investigation as long as it's active or during work hours or on company property.

The Bottom Line

In every investigation, investigators walk a tightrope, trying to balance a number of competing interests. This recent ruling extends those competing interests to include the need to maintain confidentiality and employees' rights to discuss the conditions of their employment.

For now, the best solution during an investigation is to avoid blanket requests for privacy, articulate valid reasons for privacy requests when they occur, and make sure your requests are as limited as possible.

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