Rochester Business Journal–Managers at Work
Q. “Two of my team members have been having an affair for a while now and one of them is married. They have been goofing off to a certain extent, taking long lunches, calling in sick on the same day, sitting next to each other in meetings. Some team members have had to field awkward calls from her husband. The whole situation has become a bit of a behind-the-scenes office joke. Both of them have lost respect among their colleagues, which makes it more difficult for them to work effectively within the team. I’m relatively new to the team leader role and find myself struggling with it. The team has been doing good work as a whole but what do I say if any of them complain about having to do more because this couple is less engaged and sneaking away from time to time? Also, how do I raise this with the couple? I’m pretty sure they’re going to deny the affair.”
A. Oh, this is a dicey situation that I’m sure you’d rather avoid dealing with. The complexities are almost overwhelming: the potential loss of productivity and team momentum, the spread of gossip and implications for future careers and relationships.
While office romances go on regularly, it is interesting to note that the number of workers dating co-workers has actually declined in the recent past, according to a survey by CareerBuilder, released in February. Whether that is a result of the current climate around sexual harassment is not clear. The survey of more than 800 full-time workers, conducted online between last November and December, indicated that some 36 percent of workers reported dating a co-worker. This is down from 41 percent the year before and 40 percent in 2008.
“Office romance is experiencing a dip and whether it’s impacted by the current environment or by workers not wanting to admit the truth, the fact remains that office romance has been around forever and will continue to be,” said Rosemary Haefner, chief human resources officer in a statement for CareerBuilder.
But what do workers really think about it? Amy Nicole Salvaggio, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Tulsa, conducted a study of nearly 200 workers in a variety of work environments and found that most did not mind seeing a romance develop between two unmarried colleagues. They did, however, object when one or both co-workers were married to someone else and when the relationship was between a supervisor and a direct report, wrote Susan Heathfield, a human resources expert with The Balance Careers and SusanHealthfield.com.
Regardless of how workers in your office really feel about the situation, Heathfield urges you not to delay taking action in this.
“I’d not wait until a coworker complains,” she said in an interview. ”That makes you look ineffective as a boss. Since you are the responsible party who leads this team, you need to act proactively to address the problem since it is having an adverse impact on your workplace.
Speak with each person separately, and you don’t need to mention an affair or purported affair in the conversation. The affair is not your workplace issue. It is also an assumption.”
Roy Cohen, a New York City executive coach and author of the book. “The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide: Success Secrets of a Career Coach,” agreed, saying that if the co-workers are MIA with some frequency, others in the office will feel the extra burden.
“That is just not fair,” he says. “And if the relationship breaks down, which is inevitable, the fallout could heighten tensions even further. Imagine the consequences when team members feel compelled to take sides.”
Like Heathfield, Cohen suggested speaking to each of them privately. “Do not accuse them of actions that are inappropriate. Simply suggest that rumors have circulated and you are concerned that these rumors may be both disruptive and untrue,” he says. “Ask for feedback. Never accuse. Sometimes making people aware of the consequence of their actions is enough to discourage them from continuing to engage in these activities, and, if not, at least they may be less reckless in publicly exposing their behavior.”
When you speak with each person separately, Heathfield suggests sticking with the facts.
“For example, ‘Mary, when you and John sit next to each other at every meeting, giggle and exchange glances, it makes your co-workers feel uncomfortable. How would you suggest that the problem of uncomfortable co-workers best be addressed?’”
Hopefully, Mary will say that she will sit with other co-workers during meetings. Then ask her if she will agree to do that in the future, Heathfield says. “If she agrees, then you have something to call out her behavior on if she breaks her word in the future.”
Likewise, if you’re meeting with John, for example, you can bring up the topic of the long lunch hour that he takes with Mary.
“This inconveniences your co-workers in these ways (and be specific). How do you think this problem can be solved? Again, if his answer is acceptable, make an agreement,” Heathfield says. “Use this approach to address each behavior that is problematic.”
And take the same approach when you talk with Mary about the phone calls and let her know that she is “placing her coworkers in an unacceptable stressful situation when they have to field calls from her husband when he is expecting to talk with her at work and she is not there.”
Would a formal, well-written policy make a difference? A Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) survey in 2013 found that 42 percent of companies had developed formal written workplace romance policies. Nearly all of those policies prohibited romantic relationships between supervisors and staff members. Some 33 percent of organizations forbid romances between employees who report to the same supervisor and 12 percent won’t allow employees in different departments to date, Heathfield wrote.
Those in the surveys who discouraged or forbade dating in the workplace cited issues with potential sexual harassment claims, retaliation, claims that a relationship was not consensual and lots more. They also worried about “rampant and disruptive gossip” and about losing valuable employees who would go elsewhere if the relationship ends, Heathfield says.
But the problem with policies is ”nobody follows them,” noted biological anthropologist and author Helen Fisher in an interview with Harvard Business Review. “The bottom line is that about 34 percent of singles actually do feel that the office is a place to meet people,” she said.
But only 12 percent of organizations in the SHRM survey provided training to managers and supervisors on managing workplace romances, Heathfield wrote. “Supervisors need to understand the appropriate disciplinary actions they should take” if a romance derails or becomes sexual harassment.
Indeed, the situation changes a lot if the situation enters sexual harassment territory, says Sharon Stiller, partner with Abrams, Fensterman Fensterman Formato Fetrara Wolf & Carone LLP.
“One issue is that what may seem like a voluntary affair may not be (witness the ‘me too’ allegations), so it may be necessary to report this to HR just so they can limit any potential exposure,” Stiller says.
Realistically, though, when this couple hears some more about what’s going on in the office, “they should want to take some action to improve their behavior,” says Steve Modica attorney and owner of Modica Law Firm in Rochester.