A friend recently shared with me that she was “afraid to care” when it came to the subordinates she encounters on a daily basis. Especially during this holiday season, it struck me as a sad commentary on what the exponential growth of lawsuits has done to the important interpersonal and professional relationships in the workplace.
She felt that knowing any personal information about her subordinates – whether it be how their ill family member was doing or what they did the past weekend – would only lead to knowledge that could invite or support a future claim against the company. This struggle between wanting to develop professional interpersonal relationships and the fear of providing ammunition for a future discrimination claim is not an uncommon one among supervisors.
Certainly, laws should be in place to prevent discrimination based on any number of protectable characteristics. Employment decisions should never be based on gender, color or disability, but rather should be based on merit alone.
But is this really what we had in mind, making otherwise good, well-meaning people afraid to care about their fellow human beings?
Employers and supervisors have become so wary of the possibility of being sued that they often are paralyzed when it comes to developing the important interpersonal relationships that make a workplace thrive.
But what can a supervisor or employer do to clear the path for development of workplace relationships without exposing themselves to unnecessary and unwanted liability?
First and foremost, employers should have good policies, procedures and reporting mechanisms in place. These are the best way to avoid most kinds of liability. This means more than just having a lengthy and detailed employee handbook, however, and handing the employee a copy at orientation. A 100-page employee handbook does little good if it is confusing, contradicts itself and no employee actually reads it. Make sure the employees not only receive and have constant access to the policies, but also that they understand them. Also, ensure that employees have numerous avenues to report any concerns and that such information is posted throughout the workplace.
For supervisors, first remember that knowing information about a subordinate, no matter how sensitive, can never lead to liability in and of itself. It is an employer’s actions after learning of the information that leads to liability. This is not to say that a supervisor should seek out sensitive information about a subordinate. But one should not live in fear of discovering such information during the course of a professional relationship. If any sensitive information is learned, just be sure to continue to treat the employee in the same fashion you did previously.
Next, follow the policies and procedures the employer has in place consistently and treat every employee the same. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with developing interpersonal relationships with subordinates, such relationships should not cloud your judgment in carrying out the policies and procedures consistently. No exceptions to policies should be made just because you have good relationships with certain employees. In that same vein, document how you treat every employee consistently and the same. The single most important way a supervisor can demonstrate that he or she is not playing favorites is to be able to demonstrate through documentation that every employee was treated the same.
There is no question that a workplace filled with positive and professional interpersonal relationships will lead to a more productive and satisfied workforce. Striking the balance between fostering those positive and professional relationships and appropriate workplace discourse can be a difficult one. But with proper guidance and policies, supervisors and employers can try to find that balance.
Aaron Graf is an employment associate in Gonzalez Saggio & Harlan LLP’s Milwaukee office. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.