Amazon’s The Expanse Raises Issues Concerning Workplace Romances

Note: Includes spoilers for Amazon Prime’s The Expanse.

I am an unabashed science fiction nerd. Growing up, I tended to gravitate toward television shows, movies, and books that took place in our own future as opposed to those that were set a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

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A while back, a very good friend suggested that I take a pass at The Expanse, a show that formerly aired on SyFy but now is available on Amazon Prime. I’m so glad I finally watched it.

Based on the series of novels by James S.A. Corey, The Expanse takes place hundreds of years in the future. Earth is populated by 30 billion or so people (half of whom are unemployed and live off of basic assistance), is governed by the United Nations, and has colonized Luna (or, as we typically call it, “the moon”). Humans have also colonized Mars, which is a military power with its own independent government.

Additionally, there are people living in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, on the moons of various other planets, and in space stations (these folks are referred to as “Belters”). The Expanse explores interpersonal and political tensions between Earthers, Martians, and Belters, who all vie for power and limited resources within our solar system.

The main characters in The Expanse are the crew of the Rocinante, a Martian military ship salvaged by former United Nations Navy Officer James Holden (the Rocinante’s captain), Belter Naomi Nagata (executive officer), Martian Alex Kamal (pilot), and Earther Amos Burton (chief engineer). Early in the series, a romance develops between Holden and Nagata, which they initially keep from the rest of the crew. They ultimately decide to disclose their relationship to Kamal and Burton, who kind of knew all along and had a bet as to when their colleagues’ romance began.

In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream ‘Inappropriate Workplace Romances’

Of course, there was the potential for things to go bad following Holden and Nagata informing the rest of the Rocinante crew of their involvement. Workplace romances are fraught with various landmines of both the legal and the morale variety.

As discussed in a previous post, supervisors like Holden may be found strictly liable for sexual harassment of other employees. While Holden and Nagata’s relationship is consensual, it opens the door for potential claims that Holden subjected Nagata to a hostile work environment or quid pro quo sexual harassment. Furthermore, Kamal and Burton could perceive Holden as giving preferential treatment to his lover, Nagata, with respect to the terms and conditions of employment, which could give rise to sex discrimination claims.

Notwithstanding issues of whether the rest of the crew are Holden’s employees (the show eventually settles on the crew being co-owners of the Rocinante) or whether 21st-century American harassment and discrimination law applies in the fictional future of The Expanse, there are steps that could have been taken to limit potential legal exposure based on Holden and Nagata’s being together.

For example, a policy could have been put in place prohibiting romantic relationships aboard the ship (or, at the very least, relationships between individuals with reporting relationships). Such an approach is generally permissible in most states, though employers must be careful to apply such policies in a fair and nondiscriminatory manner.

Employers can also require disclosure of romantic relationships (a step Holden and Nagata took voluntarily) or even mandate that employees who are romantically involved enter into so-called “love contracts” that require them to acknowledge they are involved in a consensual relationship that is not in violation of the company’s discrimination or harassment policies.