New Guidance Regarding Employee Handbooks — Part One: Don’t Let Your Confidentiality Provisions “Chill” Employee Communications

It is a great time for employers to review their employee handbooks. Richard F. Griffin, Jr., General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), recently issued a lengthy and detailed report summarizing the NLRB’s rulings on common handbook provisions. To view the complete Memorandum, click here.

The rulings in the report apply to both unionized and non-unionized employers because the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) restricts all employers from issuing policies or rules – even if well-intentioned – that inhibit employees from engaging in activities protected by the act, such as discussing wages, criticizing management, publicly communicating about working conditions and discussing unionization.

This LaborSphere post is the first in a series that will provide guidance based on the NLRB’s report. Over the upcoming weeks, we will summarize what the NLRB has deemed acceptable and unacceptable language for workplace policies on: (1) professionalism; (2) harassment; (3) trademarks; (4) photography/recording; and (5) media contact.

When Does A Confidentiality Policy Go Too Far?

The NLRB acknowledges that employers have a legitimate right and need to protect confidential information. However, policies that are overbroad and can be interpreted by employees to prohibit discussion regarding their wages, hours and working conditions will draw scrutiny from the NLRB. While context always matters for policy language, there are some “DON’Ts” that have clearly emerged from the NLRB report:

•  DO NOT prohibit employees from discussing “employee information.”

•  DO NOT prohibit disclosure of “another’s confidential information.” This could be interpreted to be wages and therefore violate the NLRA.

•  DO NOT prohibit disclosure of “details about the employer.”

•  DO NOT prohibit disclosure of all categories of “non-public information.”

The NLRB not only disfavors policies and rules that expressly prohibit or restrict employee discussions and collective action, but also those that are vague enough to dissuade an employee from such activities. According to the NLRB, employees should not have to guess about whether they are allowed to talk about their pay, hours or working conditions, but should instead feel free to do so.

When Do Confidentiality Rules Strike The Right Balance? 

Employers can vigorously and clearly prohibit disclosure of trade secrets and other confidential business information, provided that employers do not define those terms too expansively. Some examples of confidentiality policies that the NLRB has deemed lawful include:

•  No unauthorized disclosure of “business ‘secrets’ or other confidential information.”

•  “Misuse or unauthorized disclosure of confidential information not otherwise available to persons or firms outside [the Employer] is cause for disciplinary action, including termination.”

•  “Do not disclose confidential financial data, or other non-public proprietary company information. Do not share confidential information regarding business partners, vendors or customers.”

Even with brightline rules and other strong guidance, perhaps the most important takeaway when reviewing company policies is that context matters. Illustrative of this point, the NLRB upheld a rule that prohibited disclosure of “all information acquired in the course of one’s work.” On its face, this rule is arguably overbroad and could chill employee communications. However, the NLRB recognized that the rule was “nested among rules relating to conflicts of interest and compliance with SEC regulations and state and federal laws” and, as such, could not be reasonably understood to prevent employees from discussing their wages, hours or working conditions.

In sum, when reviewing policies intended to safeguard confidential information, an employer should watch out for language that is arguably overbroad or lacks sufficient context to justify its scope. This approach is the best formula for ensuring that policies achieve the employer’s true purpose: protecting critical confidential and proprietary information.

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