Boss Over-rides My Firing Office Flirt!

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about flirting employee:

A year ago we hired a lovely young lady who recently moved to our area because he husband accepted a position with a large firm. This young lady is very attractive, young, delightful personality and a good worker.

A few months after she started working with us she began having affairs with co-workers and vendors. She brought nude pictures of herself to work and was emailing them from the computer at her desk. She wears extremely provocative clothing and flirts with every single male who comes in. It doesn’t matter to her if the object of her desire is married, as it didn’t matter to her that she was married either. She started messing around with a long time employee who is married and has a young child. Now this long time employee is getting a divorce.

The problem I’m having is that another co-worker is very good friends with this employee’s wife. I will refer to the employees by name, the ones having the affair are Rachelle and Peter, the co-worker is Lil and the distraught wife is Tammy. Lil and Tammy are very good friends and Tammy is constantly calling Lil telling her everything that is going on.

I am the Office Manager who has no authority over anything. My boss is constantly overriding any decisions I make. When I first heard about naked pictures I immediately addressed the issue by telling Rachelle that was very inappropriate and that she is to not have nude pictures of herself on the company computer. I thought the problem was solved but then found a CD full of pictures. I wanted to fire her but was over-ridden by my boss. Lil and Rachelle were very good friends at one point and Rachelle was telling Lil everything she was doing. The affairs, emails she was sending out, her next “victim”, etc.

She confided everything to Lil. Lil came to me with all this and I talked to my boss about it. I realize that what Rachelle does after she leaves her job each evening is no concern of mine and I personally don’t care what she does…as long as it doesn’t effect the company. We are in a small town and the gossip and rumors are flying like crazy and Rachelle has made herself a very bad reputation. This is such a mess.

My boss told us four women that gossip will not be tolerated and made us sign a paper saying such and we could be terminated if we continued to engage in gossip. My problem is this: while I’m not engaging in gossip I do have moral standards that this young lady fails to stand up against. I don’t like her, but I continue to have a professional relationship with her. She is very good at her job and she is a sweet person. I am afraid that my boss is blinded to her “outside” behavior and that she is messing with co-workers.

She acknowledges it is going on but says it isn’t anything she can do anything about. In other words, she is condoning it and is threatening to fire those of us who feel it is against company policy by engaging in inappropriate behavior with co-workers and vendors. A hostile workplace environment exists now. And to make matters worse, I am a victim of an office shooting and am scared to death we have a similar situation building. What do you suggest, how should the company be handling this situation? I appreciate any feedback you can pass along.

Signed, Over-ridden

DearĀ Over-ridden:

The situation you describe is certainly complicated and has the potential to create an even worse situation than has occurred so far. All of the issues involve a lack of focus on work and the placement of focus on issues that detract from a good work environment. Regain the correct perspective and help others do so as well, and your responses to everything will be easier. Right now there is a lot of talk and whispers and speculating. Replace that with a down-to-business approach and see if things don’t improve. In this case, business also involves correcting some key concerns.

1. First, you need to be aware that you are more likely to be viewed as having behaved negatively than anyone. That may seem unfair, given your efforts. But your supervisory role places you in a different situation than others might have. Rachelle could complain that you are her supervisor and have discussed her sexual activities with other employees and have thus added to the negative gossip about her. If you have mentioned your views of her morality compared to yours or discussed that you would like to fire her but have not been supported by a manager that only adds to the problem. If you found the CD of her photos in any way except the most obvious, that adds to it even further. The kindest view of Lil is that she has had to endure a hostile work environment as well, because of all she has heard. Thus, you should have gotten a statement from her and protected her. The least kind view is that she has been stirring up a lot of this herself, yet no action was taken about that either. Peter apparently has not been talked to about it by anyone. No one seems concerned about underlying issues related to both Rachelle and Peter’s actions. Rachelle seems to be acting out of character for someone who is as sweet as you say. Peter may be going through difficult times himself, for reasons no one may know. That does not excuse problem behavior, but does point to a need to see how to diffuse the ill effects on work. Rachelle does not come out looking so badly, when viewed from the perspective of what else has happened. She apparently started the situation with her computer use, and action was taken about that. Certainly she has done other inappropriate things as well, by talking to people at work about her actions and intentions. But your role as a supervisor is to deal with her AND with those who are gossiping about her. So, you need to focus on your role if you want to stay out of trouble yourself. You cannot be both the Office Manager and a participant in office gossip. You also cannot be effective if you let your own emotions and morality have an impact. Neither can you be effective if your focus is on anything but getting people back to work in a safe and secure environment, while dealing with problems in a way that helps everyone as much as possible. For a few minutes, take yourself out of the situation personally, and come back to it with the idea that you will stay focused on your role.

2. Resolve today to stop talking about it and direct others to let you and your boss deal with the situation. If Lil says something to you say, “You know Lil, I’ve been thinking about this situation and I realize that the way I’ve been approaching it hasn’t helped. So, I’m trying something different. Mostly I’m going to see what I can do to get our focus back on work. Then, I’ll work with Mary (the boss) to deal with the issue about Rachelle and Peter. So, I’m not going to talk about it again unless I’m doing something to help the situation. I’ve just read that it is a federal law violation to gossip about someone’s sex life, no matter how much information they have provided. So, the best thing for all of us to do is to stop.” If Lil attempts to talk about it further, repeat that message, more forcefully and remind her that one more time will require you to take action about her behavior.

3. It sounds as though you have a frustrating situation with your boss. On the other hand, your boss likely sees the situation in which you have placed yourself by being part of the problem. You may not have meant to be, but it has worked out that way. Try to repair that situation, so you can work together. Write an email to your boss agreeing that office gossip should stop, but reiterating that the situation is distracting from the focus on work. Ask for her help to intervene in the situation so that work can be the primary focus. It won’t happen quickly, but can happen eventually if the situation is handled in an organized, unemotional and UN-vindictive way. Suggest the following: *A decision by the two of you about a united effort to get work back on focus. You will need to convince her that your only interest is to get back to work and prevent a liability problem for the organization, her and you.
*A review of organizational rules and policies to determine is there has been a violation and if it has been documented. If there are no appropriate rules or policies, ask that something be considered that would address office relationships, such as: use of the computer to communicate about sexual matters or for other inappropriate reasons, discussing intimate and personal situations in the workplace and anything else that you can see should be limited or prohibited because it distracts and detracts from the focus on work.
*A discussion with HR, personnel or a higher level in the organization, to get advice on how to handle the situation better. There have apparently already been violations regarding liability issues. A higher manager or the boss would certainly want to ensure that issues were handled correctly. If you have any legal adviser or can get one, check with them. There are issues here that go past general office correction and could result in lawsuits from several people. All of them would have you and your manager as a central focus. So, having legal advice would be helpful.
*An immediate and focused response based on the things that you DO have control over. 4. If you want to stop this situation from getting worse you will need to decide what damage is being done and act from those perspectives. *If there are rules violations, take care of those by documenting them and providing evidence. You mentioned the use of the computer. Apparently Rachelle stopped her behavior when you told her to. You don’t say how you found the CD, but I would imagine it was not lying out in the open. If it was, it still might not indicate a violation of a company policy. You can ask that your new policy will cover having explicit material in the workplace, in any format. If it wasn’t out in the open, there is a weaker case and again you may have put yourself in a difficult situation. Next time, ask your manager first, what support you will receive about your proposed actions. Ensure that appropriate action is taken about violations. *If there is a rule against relationships in the company, provide the evidence you have. If the manager does not want to take action, see if she would consider getting another view higher up. If not, you will have shown your efforts at least. Just ensure that enforcement of the rule is applied to both Peter and Rachelle, not only one of them.
*Direct Rachelle that she is to never again discuss her personal situation with employees, either at work or away from work, because both have an impact on the workplace. Instruct her that if she needs to discuss it because she needs advice or help, she should talk to you or the manager. Also, after clearing this with your manager, discuss the appropriate way to interact with vendors and others. If any of them have appeared to be offended, get statements from them so you have support for your thoughts. But even if they have not been offended, set standards for professional conduct with those in the office, guests and clients. Rachelle has a job to do and should have standards for how to do it. Flirting, sexual innuendo and other unprofessional conduct can hurt the organization and should not be allowed.
*Direct Peter about conversation and activities that provide open evidence of a relationship. If he has another supervisor, work with that person.
*Direct anyone who was getting phone calls, emails or receiving confidences about it, that they are to refuse to discuss it in the future, except with a supervisor or manager in a professional way. Tammy should be told by Lil to stop calling her at work about it. If she calls her at home, Lil should tell her that she (Lil) can’t say or do anything about it at work any longer. Far better help would be obtained by referring Tammy and Peter to a marriage counselor or divorce counselor!
*Your manager and you should get a statement from Lil about what she has heard or seen in the workplace, related to a potential for a hostile work environment, whether or not she says she wants to make an organizational complaint. The thing is that now you know. You absolutely know that she has indicated she is offended by all that has been going on because she has talked about it with you. So, whether or not she wants to make a complaint, she brought it to your attention and you and your manager are obligated to act on it. If your manager refuses, at least you have made the effort and can document that if problems arise. For example, Lil might say now that the photos and conversations haven’t bothered her to the extent that she wants to make an organizational complaint. But a year or two from now she could easily say she brought things to your attention, you didn’t take action and she has had stress ever since. If you can show you diligently tried to take action that would at least protect you somewhat. The same statement should be taken from anyone else who has seen or heard about this. You need to send a decisive message that this kind of inappropriate action is not going to be tolerated at any time, and you want to know if anyone has been negatively affected by it. Lil does not appear to be a very admirable person, when considered in the light of her role in all of this. She pretends to be a friend, but also listens to anything she is told, without saying how she feels about it. So, she may need to be counseled about keeping her relationships professional in the office. *The issues away from work that result from Rachelle and Peter’s action, are their own concerns, unless some disrepute comes to the organization–or is likely to come to it–because of the situation. In that case, you would need to show that they are viewed as representatives of the organization and the organization depends upon positive views of its ethics and morality to maintain effectiveness. And those higher-up would have to agree. Don’t start anything they won’t support.

You mentioned the shooting situation. Any domestic situation can result in violence. However, unless you have reason to think it likely, most would view that is not an immediate worry. If it is, instruct everyone at work that they are to call the police if Tammy comes to the workplace and gives any indication that she might be a threat. If you follow through on either these suggestions or ideas you have developed, you will have separated Rachelle and Peter’s personal lives from the office.

The office should be free of anything that relates to anyone’s sexual or relationship activities, if they are obvious and detract from the focus on work or puts the focus on someone personally. You should either have started organizational action or be in the process of getting another opinion from higher up. Now, all that is left is to redirect everyone to work. One small but effective way to do that is to have an office-cleaning day where everyone straightens up their desk areas and around their workspace.

Clean the break room; straighten the files. Those are all things that say, “We’re here to work. We’ve stopped meddling in people’s private lives and they’ve stopped bringing their private lives to work. We’ve enforced the rules and we’ll keep doing that. Now, let’s all put our focus on what we’re being paid to do on a daily basis.” I can’t help but think many other employees would welcome the change. All of that starts by reorganizing your own thinking. Whether or not someone is sweet or has morality that fits your standards is not the essential issue. Your focus must be on getting the work done through others and supporting each individual as well as the team. I hope this has provided some thoughts to help you get started on a more productive path about this. Best wishes! If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know how thing are resolved. Focus on getting the job done takes a WEGO mindset.

Tina Lewis Rowe