In today’s world, employees spend increasingly more time at work, including in the manufacturing industry where jobs are generally not remote. This means that employees may have close working and personal relationships with each other, such as dating and romantic relationships as well as friendships. Such relationships, between peers, employees and supervisors, or even employees and individuals affiliated with the company, can create workplace issues and legal risks if not managed properly. Therefore, manufacturers should ensure that they have adopted policies and procedures to adequately address such issues and mitigate the associated risks.
First, manufacturers should implement and update policies regarding workplace relationships, including policies addressing dating and romantic relationships as well as fraternization, familial relationships, and nepotism. Such policies can be narrow or broad in scope and application, which may depend on the particular workplace and employee population. Such policies should be uniformly applied to all employees and clearly address whether and what types of relationships are permitted, whether any relationships are prohibited and the reason for that position, whether relationships must or should be reported to human resources, and the consequences for failure to report. For example, if a policy prohibits relationships between employees and supervisors, it should be clear about whether that includes all supervisors, only those in a direct reporting relationship to a particular employee, or those that could influence the employee’s terms and conditions of employment.
Second, manufacturers should ensure that their sexual harassment prevention policies are clear and up-to-date as well as their sexual harassment training programs. Policies and trainings should be clear that unwelcome sexual advances will not be tolerated and should include examples such as repeated requests for dates, unwelcome gestures (e.g., giving of gifts or tokens of affection), among other such situations. Furthermore, such policies should describe the legal theories of hostile work environment and quid pro quo harassment. Quid pro quo harassment arises when someone in a position of power or authority (e.g., a supervisor) seeks sexual favors from an employee in return for a job benefit or to avoid an adverse action (e.g., demotion). Strong policies and trainings that address workplace relationships are necessary because such relationships can create difficulties or complications in an employer’s ability to maintain a professional, respectful and harassment-free work environment; such relationships between supervisors and their direct reports can create a hostile work environment for others, feelings of favoritism or exclusion, and conflicts of interest, among other issues.
Third, it is important for manufacturers to understand that when a relationship between employees ends or issues arise in the context of their relationship, it may impact the workplace and employers can be liable for failing to protect the employees involved. Therefore, it is important for employers to monitor such issues and take action when necessary to maintain a harassment-free work environment; in other words, once employers are on notice of such issues, they are involved and should act accordingly.