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No love for retail workers; American Apparel prohibits workplace romance

Feb. 10, 2015

Amid complaints that American Apparel management has perpetuated a highly sexualized work environment, the clothing retailer has moved to prohibit romantic relationships between personnel. That move should satisfy concerned shareholders, who have recently witnessed the ousting of CEO Dov Charney for alleged sexual misconduct, but it might also limit the firm’s access to the young, attractive workers that are such a big part of the American Apparel brand.

American Apparel’s new policy, that is best described as “you tell us that you are dating and we will decide if and how you will be punished”, is far more severe than the no-fraternization policies that most US firms have implemented over the last decade. According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), while 42% of US firms have some form of policy on workplace relationships, either written or verbal, most confine their restrictions to relationships between supervisors and their direct subordinates.

The American Apparel policy goes further, indicating that the company will have sole discretion in determining whether or not a relationship, even one between workers at the same level, causes concern over a vague list of issues that includes employee morale. The proposed response to unacceptable relationships includes, but is not limited to, the relocation of workers to new positions, but that option does not seem feasible with its retail stores being largely geographically isolated.

Most adults can make the distinction between firms that protect workers from sexual harassment and those that limit worker’s access to mutually beneficial sexual relationships. The workplace continues to be an important place in which individuals meet romantic partners; among couples that married between 2005 and 2012, almost as many met at work (14%) as those who met through online dating sites (16%).

Prohibiting consensual sexual relationships could, in theory at least, encourage young singles to consider alternative places of employment in which they are free to search for love.

It’s a theory that has some empirical support. Researchers in the Department of Management at the University of Memphis asked university-aged participants to respond to a scenario in which they have been informed by a prospective employer that they will be replacing a worker who was terminated for having a consensual sexual relationship that contravened the firm’s code of conduct.

They found that job seekers responded to this information by reducing their willingness to accept job offers based on perceived lack of fairness and a sense that the company would not be a fun place to work.

There is certainly is no shortage in the pool of workers the retailer traditionally draws from; according to Friday’s jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics the unemployment rate of teenagers remains stubbornly high at exactly triple the over-all unemployment rate of 5.6%. Despite this American Apparel might find itself having to consider hiring some off-brand workers to replace those who put personal relationships over work.

 

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