This week’s post was co-authored by Robinson+Cole Labor and Employment Group lawyer Emily A. Zaklukiewicz.
In today’s world, employees in manufacturing and similar industries spend a majority of their time on-site at work, engaging in work, and communicating with other employees. Over time, employees may form close bonds with other employees, including friendships, close personal relationships, and dating and romantic relationships. While such relationships may be positive for the employees involved, they can create significant legal risks and employee relations issues in the workplace and impact the overall culture and working environment. Therefore, it is critical for employers to understand how to navigate such relationships and limit the associated actual and potential risks.
There may be significant risks associated with the existence or end of close workplace relationships, such as the risk of sexual harassment claims under both hostile work environment and quid pro quo theories as well as retaliation. Generally, under state and federal law, employers are required to provide a workplace that is free of sexual or other harassment and discrimination. When close personal, dating, and romantic relationships exist in the workplace or when such relationships end, it can become increasingly difficult for employers to maintain a workplace that is free of unwelcome sexual advances or favors for both those involved in the relationship and other employees who might observe the behavior. Further, if those relationships end, there could be an increased risk of employee relations and other issues in the workplace and challenges around ensuring employees maintain professional working relationships. Perhaps the most significant risk is when employees who have a reporting relationship at work (supervisor-direct report), have a close personal relationship. In addition to these legal risks, workplace relationships may create conflicts of interest, feelings of favoritism, lack of collegiality or professionalism, and discomfort, among other issues.
Based on the risks that romantic or close personal relationships can cause in the workplace, employers should consider implementing clear policies governing fraternization, workplace or romantic relationships, conduct and behavior expectations, and conflicts of interests. Policies on romantic or close workplace relationships should include several key elements, such as: 1) what relationships are covered (e.g., romantic, dating, close, personal, friendships, etc.); 2) whether such relationships are permitted and for whom (e.g., prohibition against relationships between employees in a direct reporting relationship versus prohibiting all such relationships); 3) whether notice of such relationships must be provided to human resources; 4) expectations for workplace conduct of such employees; and 5) any increased obligations that such relationships may create (e.g., whether there is a risk of resignation or transfer of employees in such relationships, etc.). Such policies should be clearly written and apply to employees consistently, without regard to the sex or gender of the individual involved. There should also be procedures in place to ensure there are open channels of communication, so employees feel comfortable discussing these issues with their managers or supervisors and human resources. Managers, supervisors, and employees should understand the policy and expectations and how to manage such relationships if they arise. Employers should also consider training employees on these policies as part of their sexual harassment prevention, workplace culture, or other trainings.