Employers Beware – SEC Charges Company for Stifling Whistleblower Activity

Employers conducting internal investigations often have employees sign agreements requiring them to acknowledge the confidential nature of employee interviews. Less common are agreements that prohibit employees from discussing the interview with anyone outside the company on the pain of possible termination for such disclosure. On April 1, 2015, the SEC found such an agreement, required by a global engineering firm, to violate SEC Rule 21F-17. That Rule, adopted pursuant to Dodd-Frank, prohibits companies from taking, “any action to impede an individual from communicating directly with the [SEC] about a possible securities violation, including … threatening to enforce a confidentiality agreement.”

The firm, KBR Inc., had required witnesses in internal investigations to sign confidentiality statements with language warning that they could face discipline or be fired if they discussed the matters with persons outside KBR. Although there was no evidence that KBR had actually sought to enforce the confidentiality statement, KBR nonetheless agreed to pay a $130,000 penalty and amend its confidentiality statement to make clear that employees may report potential securities violations to the SEC and other federal agencies without fear of retribution.

Bottom line: Companies conducting internal investigations that want to have witnesses acknowledge the confidential nature of interviews should amend their agreements and statements to reflect that employees may report potential violations to the Government without fear of any adverse employment action. In fact, companies seeking to avoid this problem may want to consult the amended language adopted by KBR in the SEC Order –   http://www.sec.gov/litigation/admin/2015/34-74619.pdf.

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