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Recent Decisions Make Too Much Employee Confidentiality a Problem

Being businesses built upon the value of information, and working constantly to create new business models aimed at monetizing that information, the communications industry tends to be very careful about letting any form of information leave the building. That, along with the highly competitive nature of the industry, means many industry players keep a very tight grip on all business-related information. As a result, the communications industry often ranks up there with defense contractors in imposing broad confidentiality restrictions on their employees, either by contract or through general corporate policy.

There are times, however, when the government has determined that public policy considerations outweigh the need of a business for secrecy. The most obvious exceptions come in the form of subpoenas and search warrants. However, there are also more subtle exceptions, one of which is addressed today in a Pillsbury Client Alert from our employment and litigation practices. The Client Alert addresses a number of decisions that have been coming out of the National Labor Relations Board, several of which found that the respective employer’s confidentiality policies violated the National Labor Relations Act because the policies could be read to prohibit employees from discussing wages, benefits, or other terms and conditions of employment with anyone else.

Under the National Labor Relations Act, such confidentiality restrictions are illegal, largely because they impede employees from engaging in collective bargaining or other employee protection activities. For those who are about to breath a sigh of relief after thinking to themselves “this doesn’t affect me since my business isn’t unionized,” hold that breath for a moment. As the Client Alert points out, while it is true that the National Labor Relations Act, and the National Labor Relations Board, are known mostly for their union-related jurisdiction, the National Labor Relations Act applies to all private employers that affect interstate commerce, not just union shops.

As the federal government’s regulation of much of the communications industry, particularly broadcasting, is based upon the interstate nature of those businesses (even where a station’s service area is entirely within a single state), it is safe to say there are few in the communications industry that are not subject to these recent rulings. In fact, while I won’t attempt to summarize the Client Alert here, as it is brief and well worth taking the time to read, I will note that one of the decisions discussed involves a player in the communications industry whose confidentiality policy was actually found to be acceptable.

In light of these recent decisions, all businesses should take a look at their confidentiality policies to determine whether they can be read to prohibit, for example, employees from discussing their salaries, raises and bonuses with each other. If the confidentiality policy is written so broadly as to unintentionally prohibit such activities, a rewrite of that policy is in order. In contrast, if the very notion of employees discussing their salaries with each other gives you heartburn, and your confidentiality policy is specifically targeted at preventing such conversations, then you have a more extensive policy rewrite ahead of you, and a lot more heartburn coming.