Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about a partner’s affair:
We are a group practice with two males and a female. We have more than 25 employees working for us. One of the male partners started an affair with an employee. Other employees are having a lot of problem with this relationship. It has come to the point where we may lose some valuable employees. Should we overlook it, fire the employee, split the group, and ask the male partner in question to leave? Thanks.
Signed, Partner in Distress
Dear Partner in Distress:
There are several issues that need to be considered in a situation such as you describe. You may have considered them already, but I’ll reiterate them as a way to help you focus your thinking. If you have a professional practice with assets that are vulnerable to legal or civil action, you will find it wise to consult an attorney about this matter. There are a number of difficult issues involved with any action you might take to remedy this situation.
1. When a boss becomes involved with an employee there is always the chance of harassment charges if things go wrong–as they often do. The entire company is liable in most such cases. Do you have policies for all employees about such issues? If there have been violations that provides you with a place to start.
2. You use term affair. Is one or both of the people involved already married? That creates additional reasons for employees to be distracted by what is going on. If both are single, they may simply be having a romance that will end in a long-term relationship or even marriage. But, still there is the issue of potential for allegations that the higher-ranking person coerced the employee.
3. Other employees may claim that they are not treated as well as the one who is involved with the boss. That may or may not involve civil issues–but certainly can, as you mentioned, create a morale problem. Hopefully the rest of the partners would not allow favoritism or overt behaviors in the workplace.
4. How do the other employees know about it? Is the conversation about it of a nature that could be viewed as sexual and embarrassing to employees as they overhear it? That adds another dimension to your concerns. Why do you think you will lose valuable employees? If there has been inappropriateness by the partner and employee, that provides you with a better foundation for your actions to stop it.
5. As you decide what to do, keep in mind that if you do anything that harms the financial or professional status of the employee there is a chance for civil action. If you harm the partner there may be a similar issue. If moving one employee to help the problem, adversely affects another employee that employee might seek redress. That is why I think an attorney might be wise.
6. Have you talked to the partner? He should certainly be aware of the potential for problems in a situation such as this. You are on strong ground from a liability standpoint. All of you could be the losers if any employee decides that the environment is permeated with the issue of sexual activity between the partner and the employee, if they allege that they didn’t get equal treatment because they were not available sexually or if the employee decides she was coerced into having an affair. In answer to your questions about options: You should not fire the employee solely because of this, since she could certainly claim that the higher-ranking person had control of the situation. You should not overlook it because it has the potential for liability and morale concerns. I don’t know how you could split the group and that likely wouldn’t solve any problems anyway. That leaves asking the male partner to leave. Your contract for partnership would have to be examined closely to see how that could be required.
There are two other options: That the affair is stopped or that, in order to continue their relationship, one or both decide to voluntarily seek other employment. That would have to be clearly voluntary on the part of the employee, and even then might not leave you free of potential liability. You can see why I think legal advice is required! And you can also see that your partner has done a very foolish thing! You next project should be clear work policies that will provide you with a basis for immediate action if something like this occurs in the future. Best wishes about this matter. It is a common one in workplaces but can certainly create a lot of trouble if not handled wisely. Conflict of interest works against functioning at work in the spirit of WEGO.
Tina Lewis Rowe